It’s the end of the year and we’re all reflecting on what’s been accomplished, what’s been changed, and what’s been forgotten about during the last 12 months. I’ve been thinking about all of those things in my own life, realizing now that I still need to fix the broken chest in my bedroom and clean out the basement (again). But I’ve also been looking back at how science and science research has fared this year. It’s been up and down to say the least and and I want to highlight a few victories and failures as we move on to 2018.
Last April, the March for Science moved science firmly into the political spectrum as scientists, clinicians, and supporters globally united to promote truth and increase awareness for science-related causes. For many science supporters, this was the first time taking politically-motivated action to protect the integrity of the field. In 2018, I expect to see science becoming even more polarized. Topics like climate change and alternative fuels will undoubtedly become platform issues for politicians (and in some cases, they already are) and keeping real facts up above the ‘alternative facts’ movement may be one of the most important challenges scientists will face away from the bench.
Organizations like Action 314 have sprung up to help elect scientists and doctors to the Hill in Washington. I’m keen to see what effect this will have on science-related policy and on U.S. policy in general. These new candidates are human after all and can still make mistakes. They will be prone to the same pressures and special interests that plague the Capitol today.
In spite of these misgivings, it IS time for science to be central in politics. As funding changes in response to the new tax overhauls in the coming years, it’ll be important to see how research and education is affected. There’s been some success already. The March for Science was spear-headed by a younger generation more willing to get into the weeds and call-out our state representatives. The final tax bill still includes the graduate student tuition waiver, which, had it been taken out, would have made going to school for an advanced degree extremely cost-prohibitive. If it weren’t for grass-roots mobilization by graduate students and organizations like AAAS, the attack on science education would have claimed a major victory.
While the March for Science deservedly belongs in the Good Category, it does also belong here in the Bad. The March for Science has had many problems since its inception. There have been major issues of transparency and inclusivity that have stymied the movement’s ability to energize the next generation’s willingness to stay involved. This is very unfortunate. The movement grew almost too fast and was soon very different from what it started as on Facebook last February – as a direct result of the Trump Administration’s beginning dismantlement of science and the increased use of ‘alternative facts’.
I remember my own frustration as we waited weeks and weeks last spring for any answers on what would be occurring during the actual march in D.C. on Earth Day. Understandably, many of those early organizers had never undertaken such an international task, with all its logistical and financial challenges. But most of those original members have now left the March for Science and sharply criticized the way the organization is run. If the March for Science wants to extend itself beyond a flash in the pan, the current board will need to sort out their in-house issues or risk losing all momentum built up last winter.
The Trump Administration HAS claimed some victories. Government scientists have been banned from presenting at conferences, including barring climate scientists from discussing their work and stripping the words ‘climate change’ from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
Other areas of concern include provisions in the new tax bill that open up the Artic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. And while only parts of the refuge will be available for drilling, ANWR represents one of the last pristine wildernesses in the United States and these areas should be protected for as long as possible. The long-term protection of ANWR and National Parks is essential not only for wildlife protection and management, but for sustaining a better future for our children. Hopefully this messages rings strongly next year.
Trump’s 2018 budget proposal also called for drastic cuts to the NIH and NSF. While most politicians in Congress have called this a non-starter, it will be interesting to see the final funding levels for both of these essential agencies in the 2018 fiscal year budget. Trump has made it clear that basic science research, particularly with our climate and alternative fuel sources, will not be a priority for his administration.
Some topics of interest in science this year are so controversial they fall into the ‘Ugly’ category. This is for a variety of reasons, which I’ll detail below.
First, the United States has formally withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, becoming the only country on the planet to withhold support for this imperative initiative. This really is the proverbial ‘burying the head in the sand’ and is not only short-sighted, but just stupid. Many U.S. cities have already declared they will follow the accord’s guidelines for carbon emissions in lieu of the federal government’s tepid response to this movement. In the long run, withdrawing from this accord will hurt the U.S. competitively in energy jobs, infrastructure, and on our national debt as more powerful storms continue to pummel the coasts. Am I being too hyperbolic? Perhaps not enough, really.
The next issue concerns the reproducibility crisis that is rippling throughout science. I’ve written before about the crisis, but briefly, scientists and researchers are beginning to find that many important studies cannot be reproduced outside of the original laboratory the observations were first made in. This year isn’t necessarily a watershed year for addressing this issue, however the focus on improving the philosophy and process of science is certainly a current topic of debate at many institutes.
I struggled to decide where the crisis should be mentioned in this article. Reproducible and rigorous research are an integral part of the scientific process and checking the work of others is an essential component therein. In fact, new theories and protocols can’t be pushed forward without this systemic re-analysis. It’s a good thing.
However, the increased media coverage of this plays into the hands of those who want to tarnish science and continue to chip away at the pillars of truth. The narrative needs to be changed to focus on how the crisis is an important cornerstone of how science is conducted, validated, and pushed forward. As long as that narrative can be casted with doubt by proponents of ‘alternative facts’, fake news, and whatever other agenda, for me the crisis stays in the Ugly category.
Finally, there continues to be a major patent dispute for ownership of the CRISPR gene editing technology between the Broad Institute and University of California-Berkeley. Billions of dollars are at stake and this year the first ruling was in favor of the Broad Institute. But Jennifer Doudna and UC Berkey have appealed and the next hearing will be next year (for a nice review of this issue see this article in the Wall Street Journal).
Anytime individual researchers compete with one another it can turn into high drama. But this time the stakes are enormous and I can’t help but feel this may be yet another time that a woman in STEM research gets handed the short straw (Doudna was the first to develop the CRISPR system as a gene editing tool in bacteria). Plus, it’s never a win when two highly-respected, international research institutes are cutthroat going at it with one another to win control of an innovative technology. This will get uglier, and it could potentially hold sway over who the Nobel Committee awards the Nobel Prize to for this discovery. Stay tuned.
And for now, that about wraps it up. Not to end on a downer, but I’m hoping things improve a bit next year. See you in 2018!