The Rightful Place Project

Isis the Scientist Says…

If you’ve been browsing the new, redesigned, fancy-pants ScienceBlogs front page lately, you may have noticed the announcement for The Rightful Place Project. In his inaugural address, President Obama vowed to restore “science to its rightful place.” In response, The Seed Media Group, through SeedMagazine and ScienceBlogs, are looking to begin a dialog about how to do this by asking for responses to the following question:

What is science’s rightful place?

Earlier in the week, Dr. Isis and the rest of the Sciencebloggers received an email from the highest of high overlordz telling us inviting us to answer the question.

So last night Dr. Isis drew a bath, poured some wine, put on a little Aretha, and slipped under the bubbles to think about her answer to the question. She left the lid of her laptop open so that she could look at The Rightful Place Project’s site while she carefully crafted what would surely be a witty and thoughtful response. Sixty minutes later I realized that I had nothing but pruny fingers and “Ain’t No Way” stuck in my head to show for my efforts.

Pruny Finger.jpg

Figure 1: The only result of Dr. Isis’s thinking bath. Sorry it didn’t turn out better, President Obama. I really am.

So, I hopped out of the bath, dried myself off, made some tea, and kept staring at the site, hoping for a little inspiration. I realized after a bit that the reason I was having a hard time was that I was so distracted by the site’s graphic. Here it is below:


Figure 2: The Rightful Place Project

I realized that what I was so hung up on was the statement “Reviving Science in America.” I kept asking again and again, “What does this even mean? Reviving science?” I ran downstairs to my office, tripping over the dog in the process, and pulled my Random House dictionary off the shelf to look up “revive” and see exactly what we were needing to do to science. Here are the first entries in the definition of “revive,” when used with an object:

1. To activate, set in motion, or take up again; renew: to revive old feuds.
2. To restore to life or consciousness: We revived him with artificial respiration.
3. To put on or show (an old play or motion picture).
4. To bring back into notice, use, or currency: to revive a subject of discussion.
5. To make operative or valid again.
6. To reanimate (the spirit, heart, or a person)

These definitions bothered me, as they each seem to refer to something one does to something that is dead, outdated, or obsolete — as though I had been toiling away in some forgotten field that needs a makeover to “restore [it] to life” and make it functional again. That, pre-Obama, I had been working on science so arcane that it had become dust-covered and stagnant and desperately needed a renewal. I would argue that there is nothing wrong with science itself as an entity. Especially my science. My science is so hot and so fresh that it would blow your mind.

I am not sure that science is not adequately being shown or is not noticed. I think about the non-scientist readers of my blog that are interested in the life of this totally hot laboratory diva (the readers who are interested in the people that are spending their tax dollars on research) and the folks who regularly read Ed Yong and Rebecca Skloot for more frequent science content, and I know that the public is interested in scientific advances. Science is quite visible — more than it has ever been and the public has more access to investigators than at any point in the past. I think about the frequent discussion of green energy and therapeutic interventions, and I know that the public wants these things to become a reality — science is currently tremendously valid and I think many are confident in the ability of science to solve our current crises.

I continued to read down the page and found that the last definition intrigued me:

10. To recover from financial depression.

And if this is what was meant by the folks at Seed Media when they created the image, then they’ve already answered their question and I can get back to browsing pictures of shoes online. The problem with science is not the enthusiasm of the scientists or the public, or the innovativeness of the questions being asked, it the resources that are available to those that are asking the questions.

I believe that many young scientists are afraid of a career in academia — not because they don’t believe themselves capable of managing the research, but because they are afraid of running in the funding race. And they should be afraid. Many students are watching previously-funded PIs scramble for funding or lose it completely. Some students are worried about where their next paycheck will come from. Major research universities are postponing faculty searches. Of those I attended grad school with, only two of us are pursuing an academic career. Students are leaving academia because they are afraid of funding, and they should be. I have no doubt that the drop in the NIH payline has cause some talented people to drop out of academic science.

Some of the faculty that are affiliated with major research universities are leaving. A scientist that I have been acquainted with for years, a brilliant scientist with multiple papers in high impact journals, recently moved his lab to Singapore. And he’s not the only one. People that choose to remain in academia are changing the way they do business — I think, in general, people are more cautious about asking ambitious questions. Unfortunately, it’s often the riskiest experiments that yield the most provocative data.

So, how do we return science to its “rightful place?” Break us off a little scratch, Mr. President. Science has been been here for these last 8 years, living off rice and beans, selling plasma to try to pay the rent, ready to take off when the money starts flowing again. Science is ready when you are.

Now, you show me $250,000/year for five years and I will show you something amazing.

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