The 54…

My colleague and friend T, sent me this link to a Jeff Mervis piece in SCIENCE. Apparently 54 scientists have lost their jobs as a result of essentially hiding their connections to China while taking funding from the NIH. As with other funding compliance issues (for example protection of human subjects), violations can be career-enders. I am quite sure that other US funding agencies are taking a close look at their PI’s also.

The key issue here for me is not declaring a conflict of interest. If they had, then if I were on the enforcement side of the equation, I’d be looking at ways to manage that conflict. So if I were to hand out advice, it’d be to disclose as much as you possibly can to a funder all the time about anything that might have questionable optics. I suspect these 54 individuals would still be gainfully employed if that had pursued that approach.

That said, I’m disturbed by the implied national distrust of Asian scientists. The use of ethnic background as a trigger for suspicion has a long and sordid history, both here in the US and around the globe.

I’m also saddened by the de-coupling that’s occurring in science collaboration between nations–particularly between the US and China. That’ll be a loss for everyone because the really big science questions can’t be solved in isolation–Manhattan Project not withstanding.

University of Alaska Fiscal Crisis

It is well known that states have systematically de-invested in their public universities over the past couple of decades. The current governor of the state of Alaska, Mike Dunleavy,  has taken this trend to a new extreme however by putting in place a 41% cut to the University of Alaska which will cause the Research 1 university to run out of money four months before the end of its current fiscal year.

The University of Alaska is unique because it houses a critical mass of this country’s arctic research. When I was at NSF, the Director and I site visited many of these facilities and the top notch scientists who conduct their research at them. It was clear that this arctic research infrastructure represents an important national resource for this country (and the world) as it adapts to climate disruption–which is accelerated in the arctic.

Jim Johnsen, the President of the UofA system has just put forward some possible responses to the cuts and here is a summary of those ideas from Inside Higher Education. His actual slide deck is here. From my own experience as an academic leader, I am more inclined towards either the first or the last of the three scenarios. Better to make a change that is strategic (and initially very painful) than to proportionately cut everything.

But the larger question is why politics has gotten to the point of self-harm for the sake of symbolism and gut satisfaction. A world class public research university is an economic innovation engine to a state–both California and Texas come to mind as exemplars of this magnet effect. There are many others. I don’t have the answer to this, but it’s not just happening inside the US: UK science will be significantly harmed by a no-deal Brexit of the type Boris Johnson (the brand new PM) has potentially committed to if the EU does not agree to his renegotiation demands. The new President of Mexico is proposing massive cuts to science in his country.

Oddly, one nation continues to invest in science as if there is no tomorrow: China.

International science: at risk?

According to SCIENCE magazine, the NIH is taking a serious look at US funded research products (including ideas, data and intellectual property) leaking to other nations–particularly near-peer competitors such as China. This is not happening in a political vacuum: the current trade tensions between the US Administration and China come to mind. And there have been concerns from Congress even before the 2016 election.

I don’t doubt that there have been instances of bad behavior by individual scientists, particularly those with dual allegiances. But I also passionately believe that the really tough scientific questions require an intellectual approach–look at Higgs in particle physics or the various brain research initiatives. Big science requires a big tent.

I hope we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water here.

France and a new super R1 university…

From Inside Higher Education, here. Money quote:

Five grandes écoles (leading French universities) should be formally merged to form a Parisian science and technology university emulating the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the French government has been told.

I think this quite a cool idea. And fits with President Macron’s recent interest in investing a lot of new money in science. Post-Brexit, France has a real opportunity in building a science powerhouse.

Teaching again…

I am now three weeks into the semester and surprisingly, it’s been fairly easy.  The routine of teaching, grading, seminar preparation and the like are relaxing, even enjoyable. My students are graduate level in the School of Public Policy at George Mason. Because we are in D.C., some of my students are as senior as I am. And, I am learning from all of them.

At the same time, I have started a book project and am busy shopping out an Op Ed about the  President’s science budget–which hasn’t been released yet. Although… there was a leak that made it to the Washington Post in the last day or so.

For fun, over Spring Break, I’ll be headed to Paris with my wife. We plan to take advantage of all the excellent advice that we have received from friends and even ex-colleagues at NSF. So enjoying life…

Chinese Super-Science

Robert Samuelson has an op ed piece in today’s WAPO on how China has become a science superpower. The piece was timed with the release of NSF’s Science Indicators annual report (currently unavailable due to the government shutdown). I was last in China six years ago and it was clear even then that the Chinese were aiming, not just to become a peer of the US, but to exceed it in all areas of science and technology. Since that visit, we have seen the Chinese leap forward in Astronomy (the largest radio telescope), quantum computing (the world’s only satellite-based quantum encryption system), biomedical research (clinical studies that have statistical power far beyond those in the west) and even ecology (with their distributed environmental sensor network).

At the same time, US investments in science and technology have been quite stagnant. For Fiscal Year 2018, President Trump proposed an 11% cut to the NSF. He proposed an even larger cut of 22% for the NIH. These proposed cuts follow years of essentially flat funding during the Obama administration.  From a GDP perspective it’s even worse! Countries like South Korea, Germany and Japan made larger investments in science relative to their economy size.

If this trend continues, China will become the essential nation from a science perspective. And the geo-political consequences of that could be dire. Leading in science historically has led to non-incremental advances that create strategic surprise (e.g. nuclear weapons, the Internet, lasers). Imagine a US President being told that our spy satellites have been hacked leaving us blind to missile launches. Or that the location of our nuclear submarines was now available in real time to our global competitors?

What can be done? For one thing, it’s useful to remember that in the process of creating a budget, the President proposes, but Congress disposes. It is essential to reach out to members of Congress and let them know how important science is to the security of this country. But even more importantly, it’s time to open the channels of communication between those who are skeptical of the value of science investment and science advocates (including practitioners). In a recent conversation with one of this country’s most prominent science advocates, it became clear to me that science has taken on a political label that is not helpful. Science should not be political. Otherwise, it will become just another special interest in the eyes of its stakeholders. And the future of science is too important for that fate.