Archive for the ‘Worldview’ Category

All scientists should read: “What’s so Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?)”

Near the end of last year the president of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science, publishers of Science magazine) wrote a great piece that every scientist should read. It concerns the role of science, and particularly basic science, in boosting GDP (gross domestic product) and providing the fodder for technological advance. A lot of great talking points for dealing with science skeptics here.

The growth in U.S. GDP per captia has been exponential since the late 19th century. Such growth is largely responsible for the high standard of living those in the US, and other developed countries, have enjoyed over the past half century or so. And what is the primary driver of this growth? It turns out that at least 50%, and up to 85%, is due to technological progress buttressed by basic science, as opposed to natural resources, land, and labor. What’s further, the return on basic science is impressive:

Many institutions, including our universities and retirement funds, accept 5% sustained ROI as a decent return. Yet investments in basic research are variously estimated as ultimately returning between 20% and 60% per year

Wowzers! If that isn’t a number to impress your friends and family, I don’t know what is. I know I always find it challenging to explain to others why it’s worth doing basic scientific research. I usually point them to the fact that green flourescent protein was discovered in jellyfish and taq polymerase originally came from thermophilic bacteria. Both have revolutionized biological science, and both came out of very basic science. But it’s nice to have some sexy numbers to back this claim up!

Another interesting aspect of the piece that is discussed is the idea of appropriability. I had not really thought about this idea before, but it is essentially the ability for the creator or discoverer of a technology to appropriate it and turn it into something that can be sold in the market. As we move into a more global and digital world, the relationship between where a discovery is made and who benefits from it economically, is increasingly blurred. 

The piece then ends with a bit that almost brought a tear to my eye:

A 2009 Harris poll (17) asked the public to name the most prestigious occupations. The answers (in order) were firefighter, scientist, doctor, nurse, teacher, and military officer. What struck me immediately when I saw this result is that every one of these, except scientist, is an immediate helper occupation. These people save us from fires, prevent attacks, teach our children, and heal us. By contrast, the value of scientists and the benefit they produce can be very long term. Yet the public perceives scientists as belonging in the same basket of high-prestige helper occupations. This tells us something. Another poll, by Pew (18), finds that the majority of Americans think that government investments in basic scientific research (73%) and engineering and technology (74%) pay off in the long run, with only small differences between Democrats and Republicans. That also tells us something.

When I ask nonscientists, “what is science good for?”, only rarely do I hear the answer that it promotes economic growth. Instead, most answers are about science creating a better world in ways not easily monetizable: enabling longer, healthier lives; protecting the planet; feeding humanity; deterring (or winning) international conflicts; bringing us resiliency to engage future challenges of an uncertain world, with climate change as one example. People also talk about the basic human need for discovery and understanding of the natural world, about the almost-mysterious power of science at engaging the natural idealism of young people, and empowering them to participate in the world in ways that they otherwise would not.

Wow! The day to day life of scientist is hard. Wrangling with data, papers, and grants. Fighting nerves to give a talk in front of peers, or for authorship…it’s a battle, no doubt about it. But knowing that people the world over put us in the same boat as fire fighters and nurses…well that just warms the cockles of my funky heart.


It’s nice to see an article about the plight of biomedical sciences in a major news outlet….just wish it was a little more cheery! I’m amazed there are 1300 plus comments on this!

The way I read this is: NIH, aided and abetted by naive academics, enticed thousands of bright young American’s into a hopeless career path.  Yea, let’s increase the supply of scientists but do nothing to increase the demand. Oh yea, and don’t forget to drill it into their heads that anything less than an Academic position is failure. That will keep them in bondage longer.

Oye…I realize this is a very cynical interpretation…but maybe I’m slowly starting to wake up from the academic science induced coma that graduate school put me in…not sure yet…stay tuned!

Kickin’ it Stateside

Posted: August 12, 2011 in Life in the UK, Worldview

I recently had the opportunity to head back to the good ole’ U-S of A over the past week to be in the wedding of a good friend. After living in the UK for almost a year now, it offered a chance for me to see the US from a fresh perspective. Some of the things I noticed:

1) US roads are very poorly marked. Unless you know wtf you’re doing and where you are going, it’s a nightmare. I’ve never been a fan of GPS (Sat Nav) and have always gone the route of maps or Google maps if need be. I was visiting an area on the east coast not far from where I grew up in New Jersey so figured I didn’t need a damn map, but I had a devil of a time finding the “city centre” of one of the towns I had to go to. In Europe and the UK there are tons of signs pointing one to the center of any small town or village. WTF USA…not very tourist friendly I must say….although the one thing the US does to better is street signs. It’s such a pain in the ass in Europe and the UK when you have to squint your eyes to try and see a street sign plastered 25 feet up on the side of the building…yea, that’s useful.

2) Again, the roads…I’ve noticed that roads in the UK and Europe are always marked with respect to cities and not necessarily directions (i.e, M3 towards London, not M3 South). I’ve always find this kind of annoying, but now I see the logic in it. All you need to know is the relative location of a handful of major cities, and where you are going in relation to it, and you are golden. In the US, unless you are on an interstate it can get very tricky, other roads like county roads, highways etc. don’t always run in the direction in which they are named (e.g, 22 east will run north at times…) which can take you way way off. Damn Americans.

3) Alright, the food in the US is about 1000% better, on average, than in the UK. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the area, but just getting a falafel wrap from a street vendor in Philly was better than just about every sandwich made in the UK I’ve had thus far. Oh yea, and if you’re ever in Philly and want the best damn cheesesteak of your life, go to Jon’s Roast Pork (Pat’s and Geno’s are complete rubbish, Jim’s on South Street is decent after a night of drinking, Campo’s, Tony Luke’s and Phillip’s ain’t bad…but Jon’s Roast Pork is THE best by far, 12oz of rib eye my friend)….eat that shitte or whatever RisottoProf says…

4) We Americans are a bunch of arrogant jackasses that don’t give a hoot about the rest of the world…oh well…whuddyagonnado?!

5) I didn’t realize how much I missed the in your face attitude of east coast city folks in the US. While at Jon’s Roast Pork a yelling match broke out between a customer and the guys behind the counter because he waited 40 minutes for his cheesesteaks (the response…SOME PEOPLE WAIT OVER AN HOUR FOR OUR STEAKS!). Now that’s something you don’t see in the UK…wow, it’s funny the things you miss…

Hmmm…I guess that’s it for now…I keep meaning to post about British and American stereotypes, so I think I’ll stop here and leave some juicy bits for that post.

One of the reasons my wife and I have always wanted to live and work overseas is to broaden our worldview. We have only been living in the UK for approximately half a year, but our understanding of America’s unique place in the world has already changed considerably. Ironically, I think considerable insight into America’s place in the world is difficult to obtain by being born, raised and living in America.

First, I have to start out by saying that as a kid, growing up, I had an overall negative view of the US despite being born and raised there and having essentially no connection to where my family originated. I’m not sure where this sentiment came from (maybe I can blame the media…), but it was clearly there for quite awhile. As I got older my stance softened and until quite recently I was essentially neutral with respect to whether I thought the US was a power for good or evil. As I have became more politically aware in the last several years I’ve started to move towards seeing the US as a positive influence in the world and in the past six months I’ve never felt or believed this more.

I think what has pushed me in the direction of being much more proud of my homeland than I ever was previously has been exposure to the history of Britain and Europe. I was never much for history in high school and always found it boring and pedantic. I always thought of history as memorizing dates, names and places. However, now that I have been exposed to not only the wonderfully and insanely complex history of Britain through my travels about the country, but to the British themselves, do I see that history has never died but that it acts to intimately define our self-identity.

The history of Britain (comprising Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England) is ridiculously complex. There are wars and battles. Subterfuge and intrigue. Kings and Queens. Incest, torture and injustice. It absolutely boggles my American mind, in which we are taught that nothing really important happened until around the 18th century (or at least that’s what I remember).

What amazes me is that Britain’s long history still has a considerable impact on the British self-image. The idea of the British Empire is not entirely gone and on more than one occasion I have heard the US and Canada being referred to as “one of the colonies” in a sort of paternal way. By and large, I think the British feel a very strong kinship with the US and the other colonies than I would have ever anticipated (or even thought of!). I find this quite fascinating because, frankly (and somewhat sadly), the feeling is not mutual. The idea of the UK as kin is quite foreign to me, and I think a lot of Americans. It is as foreign and abstract to me as the fact that the British were our oppressors back in the 18th century. And I think there is a very good reason for this: it is because America is a nation of immigrants and thus, has a very short collective memory. Our family histories are lucky to go back more than three generations, and our collective history is inevitably much shorter. We tend to carry much less historical baggage with us, and this is why I’m amazed at how a long and storied history can shape individual and collective identities as it so clearly does here in the UK.

I think the fact that America is a country of immigrants is immensely powerful. I also think that this unique composition of the US has led to what is arguably the most benign superpower in the history of the world. This is not to say the US is perfect by any means (if the idea of “perfect” can even be defined), but as world powers go, it could be a LOT worse (see Rome, Britain and Germany).

And thus, living overseas has given me much more respect for history, collective identities and the British. I have also never felt more proud to be an American.