Some ideas for a Biden Administration…

In the area of science of course. And certainly don’t count your chickens…

But, with that caveat, here are some ideas:

1) Depoliticize earth systems sciences across all agencies.

2) Prepare for the next pandemic (COVID-X) now.

3) Increase the budget of NSF to be able to have an average success rate of 30% (this reflects the excellent science that currently gets left on the “cutting room floor”).

4) Reauthorize the NIH so that the intramural program has the explicit mission of high-risk, high-payoff biomedical research and then fund the Bethesda Campus at approximately 15% of the total NIH budget.

5) Merge PCAST and the NSB into one body with one mission: science and technology advice for the President.

6) Give OSTP a $100M budget to incentivize government cross-cutting activities (e.g. Biden’s Cancer Moonshot).

7) Re-internationalize science–even while understanding that national security interests are a priority.

8) Make climate change a priority while allowing for robust research into safe geo-engineering.

9) Return to the moon and use it as a base for human solar system exploration and astronomy

10) Address sustainable human food and water security for the future.

Do plants have brains?

This was the subject of a text conversation between myself and one of my colleagues this morning in the context of this Ted Talk.

Of course, in the context of neural networks that have sensory inputs and motor outputs, the answer is no. But some plants do have excitable cells that fire action potentials. They certainly sense the environment and they can “behave”. That’s because their molecular signal transduction system is based on the same metabolic chart as ours and allows more the individual plant to respond with movement (sometimes even very rapid movement) in response to stimuli.

So plants don’t have brains, but they have the biological toolset to accomplish things that animals with brains accomplish (like counting! see the video).

COVID19 as a chronic viral illness

We tend to think of this disease as a life-threatening acute encounter, but that may not be correct. Here is an excellent survey from SCIENCE on COVID19 over the long haul–it’s not a pretty story. But once again, it’s a story of inhomogeneity. This is an illness that affects folks differently–in some cases, no problem after the virus clears, in others debilitating problems.

What scientists aim to do…

I’ve been thinking lately about the scientific method. Formally, this refers to hypothesis testing via experiment. The experiments can sometimes be natural ones: before and after some natural event one might observe the changes in species diversity. Or they can be engineered in the lab–at the bench. In this case, the scientist prepares the event. But it’s all in the name of putting a hypothesis to a test and setting the terms, contract-wise, for rejecting the truth of the hypothesis.

Informally, the scientific method refers to a whole lot more. Exploratory science is just that: conducting observations (often with technological marvels like gravity wave detectors) and revealing what’s out there–black hole mergers in the case of the gravity waves. In this case, there is no hypothesis to ritually reject. Whatever is out there is new, previously unseen, and adds to our knowledge.

What drives the above activities is often pure curiosity. The current Mars rover got its name from the driver for this type of scientific activity. But as often, it’s human need that drives science. We strive to understand how the virus gains entry into human cells in order to save lives. We tinker with silicon to build better amplifiers: transistors. But in both cases, the methodology is the same. It’s the aim that is different. But both aims are true (hat tip Elvis Costello).

Working at NIH and NSF…

I realize that I have spent a substantial part of my career (a decade) working at both of these agencies. NIH, when I first arrived in the DMV in 1988. NSF starting in 2014 through 2018. So roughly bookending my scientific career after graduate school. At NIH, I was a postdoc. At NSF, I was a senior executive. But at both agencies I enjoyed a wonderful perch to observe their respective cultures. They certainly are different–although at some level they are in the same business: funding American science. What I can also say is that there is a certain idealism at both agencies and that’s what makes me optimistic in the long run for the US. When you have smart, dedicated people striving for excellence every day, good things tend to happen. So these two parts of the US government are working–well.

Cell-cell communication…

From neuronal action potentials to cell signaling during embryogenesis, the communication between healthy cells is fascinating. And when it goes awry, very bad things happen (e.g. cytokine storms).

Outside the biomedical context, the subject matter of the details of cell-cell communication is of considerable interest. The NYT covers this wonderful article in SCIENCE today here. This is why places like the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole are so special–by studying non-model organisms (i.e. other than mouse, fruit fly or zebra fish) we gain insights from evolution on how these capabilities of cells came to be.

Why sending foreign students home hurts the US

The Trump administration has put forward a new executive order. The upshot is that foreign students at US colleges and universities, who as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, can’t take classes in person in the Fall, will loose their visa status.

This hurts the US in so many ways. First, those students are paying tuition. The loss of those dollars will be damaging to colleges exactly at they are suffering from massive financial losses from COVID19 related budget cuts. When our academic institutions are damaged, then the US itself is damaged because those institutions are the lifeblood of our innovation ecosystem–Silicon Valley’s proximity to Stanford is not accidental.

Second, those students, in the normal course of events, would return home with a likely positive view of the US: our academic institutions are still ranked top in the world. That won’t be the case if they are deported. So the US will loose one of its key sources of soft-power: foreign alumni of US universities. As importantly, we will loose the collective brain power of those students! Most folks don’t realize that its students (graduate and undergraduate) who conduct most of the research in this country. And it’s the creative collaboration between those students and their professors that is our country’s “secret sauce”. That’s why US science has historically been so good.

Finally, we loose some of the diversity that gives strength to higher education. Our graduates will still need to compete globally. An education in isolation, is an impoverished one.

Getting around censorship of journalism….

By hiding articles within the Minecraft computer game, story here. Key point: anyone can read, but no one can change the content. Hat tip to the Scifoo Alumni group.

Which brings me to the point of information control. Certainly in the scientific literature, we want content open and available–but we also want it to be accurate with regards to methods and data. But errors need to be corrected promptly, so as with software provenance (and GitHub), the evolution of changes need to be trackable.