Free Science

In a few days, my experiment.com experiment will end. Unfunded. And that is OK. I've learned a lot from the experience, first of all that funding is extremely limited for knowledge. We are hearing from the current President's administration that funding could be even tighter in the near future, as our government perhaps is deciding that it is not so important to them. And other policy changes certainly means that all of us are more anxious about protecting our liberties and personal finances.

I also learned how uncomfortable I am with asking for money. Though some faculty gripe, I actually believe I'm well paid for my job as a researcher and instructor at the University of Georgia. And so if it is important that those next 10 RNA libraries are processed, I can fund that from my paycheck. The question then starts to split, because the reason I didn't want to do that in the first place has a lot to do with objectivity and the desire to have work validated by other scientists; otherwise there is a slippery slope of simply paying for any desired work, whether it is of true value or not.

The other side of that question involves the truth about many of us in the sciences, however. We are doing this because we are truly fascinated, and so what is the value of truth to me, personally? How far do people go in their commitment to science? Of course many of us would recognize that the grad school years are financially lean but intellectually rich, and many scientists take on great sacrifices in comfort or financial security to answer the questions they want to see answered.

What are we willing to do in this new era? Only time will tell.

At what cost?

So, I've entered a new era. Two of them, in fact. The first: I'm broke, as a scientist. My lab is open, we are collecting (inexpensive) data, we will keep getting papers out. But with very little room for error in budgeting. The second: I've posted my first attempt at "crowdfunding" on Experiment.com. We will see how this goes, as much as anything I'm interested here in juggling my complicated feelings about trying this avenue for supporting my research.

First, what am I asking to fund? About $3000 in additional RNA sequencing for a project in Pisaster that I think will be really of broad interest and will open up our understanding of sea star wasting disease and general responses to pathogens in marine deuterostomes. If you want more of a defense, I encourage you of course to go to the project site at Experiment.com linked above.


Why don't I pay for that myself? Darwin paid for all of his work, right? Well, yes. And I make a good salary. I find this to be a slippery slope problem: if I just admit to not being able to support my work via traditional funding mechanisms, I can pay for some things myself, but with potential costs that exceed their value to my family, and with a potential loss of objectivity that writing proposals, and getting them funded, requires.

We as scientists can't just do whatever we want, in general. We'd like to be doing what will serve our fellow humans and our planet, and to do so effectively means that I won't be plunking down my own money just to know the microbial composition of (for example) soil on a mountain bike trail versus soil that has been undisturbed. Even if it ties together my scientific skills with trail riding, it is such a marginal increase in knowledge (I think) that I recognize that to be folly.

So I am trying this platform in part to find out whether one can appeal to the public and learn about the interest in an idea. The problem of course, is that now - 2017 - everybody I know is stressed by current politics, worried about their financial futures, and already giving money to organizations like the ACLU to help protect those affected by new policies of the new POTUS. So I'm not sure that I will get this funded - and that's OK - but I'm also not sure I will heed that answer.

The other concern with paying for things myself is that it leads to questions of relative merit. If I paid for project X from my own pocket, why won't I pay for project Y? Will I pay for my friend's project, or my student's?

Now, I pay for my smartphone - which is used daily in work-related tasks. I pay for my travel to some conferences, like the Western Society of Naturalists meeting last November. That is not only tax-deductible, it is also an expense I'm willing to bear because it maintains my being part of the science community. My marine science community. So why not pay for polymerase?

I'm not saying I won't some day. There would be freedom in that, to the extent that my family is comfortable with modest expenses. But of course it also gains no traction with colleagues for whom a federal grant, however elusive, is the only currency that can unlock promotion (or perhaps respect). So it is not a good strategy to rely on.

Things are very different from Darwin's day. And his buddies probably privately mocked his barnacle collection. He knew why he was doing it, and that passion and drive is of course one reason many of us are scientists - we really just want the answers to some things. At what cost?

In Defense of Science

Written by colleagues, spread by me:

In Defense of Science

We are deeply concerned by the Trump administration's move to gag
scientists working at various governmental agencies. The US government
employs scientists working on medicine, public health, agriculture,
energy, space, clean water and air, weather, the climate and many other
important areas. Their job is to produce data to inform decisions by
policymakers, businesses and individuals. We are all best served by
allowing these scientists to discuss their findings openly and without
the intrusion of politics. Any attack on their ability to do so is
an attack on our ability to make informed decisions as individuals,
as communities and as a nation.

If you are a government scientist who is blocked from discussing their
work, we will share it on your behalf, publicly or with the appropriate
recipients. You can email us at USScienceFacts@gmail.com.


Today, we learned that the EPA has had funding frozen and agency folks aren't supposed to talk about it. Rumors are that the USDA ARS is supposed to not disclose new information to the public until further notice. The National Park Service was censored on their twitter feed for posting photos suggesting that the inauguration was not very large. This, along with a number of other sweeping changes that one political party is driving to change funds allocated to the arts, humanities, and health suggest that we are indeed living in a new era.

Of course, I'm not happy about this. It does prompt reflection about what it means to be a scientist. We have had the luxury in recent decades (and beyond) of having a massive collection of scientists and agencies that work on both applied and basic research. So, the engineering necessary to get us to the moon, the work to understand how invasive species are impacting the Great Lakes - and questions about how diversity is distributed on the planet, right down to barnacle species and their evolutionary diversity. The latter is - until further notice - most certainly basic research, with a goal of knowledge for knowledge' sake. And yet it has had great benefits for our society. (Basic research, that is, though barnacle diversity has been used to identify the likely path of airplane wreckage, is involved in naval and shipping research, etc.)

It is worth exploring whether we are going to lose this luxury. Many solutions from basic science have gone on to transform health care, transportation, even quality of life. The point of these explorations is to learn about the world and how it works. This is, to put it benignly, not particularly appreciated by some political leaders. I fully suspect my own research, even that pertaining to diversity that may be sustaining our top predatory sea stars on the Pacific coast, would be mocked by our new president.

So how does one shift focus to find clear and direct application for biodiversity science? This is the challenge that many of us find our selves facing. I'm collaborating with one colleague on something I hope will be published soon that certainly is related to a health concern in the United States (more on that when it is out). I'm working on the sea star collapse caused by SSWD; arguably, the loss of predatory sea stars could dramatically change the diversity of our coasts and perhaps have impacts on shellfish productivity - we just don't know yet. My colleagues who work on ocean acidification and shifts in species ranges associated with climate change are on the fine line between basic and applied research, because if the funding agencies aren't allowed to care about climate change then the "application" goes away……

These are big, vague, questions. I don't have many answers. I had already begun to shift my focus towards more concrete questions of conservation and biodiversity loss in recent years, but even that is likely not going to be justified solely for the sake of biodiversity. I'm not arguing that we have to shift science to please our leaders; that would make it sound like some sort of authoritarian or fascist government, wouldn't it? But we do have to consider shifting science to make sure it makes some sense to our neighbors, our children, our friends and families. Government and policy changes or not, the climate impacts we are already seeing suggest that we are running out of the luxury to study things at leisure for interest alone.

So, what do you work on?