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Re: Four ASBMB members win Nobel Prizes, November 2015

I nominated a highly accomplished and acclaimed endocrinologist who is the leader in the discovery of nearly 50 nuclear hormone receptors for the 2016 ASBMB Bert and Natalie Vallee Award, but Aziz Sancar was selected as the recipient. Both are members of the National Academy of Sciences, and Sancar is the recipient of the highest awards from the American Society for Photobiology. The nominee is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and an awardee of the Gairdner International Award, which is considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize; as of 2012, 72 of former Gairdner recipients went on to win the Nobel Prize. When I was wondering whether it’s a toss-up between the two and whether the decision by the ASBMB awards committee is, in a number of ways, a subjective one, I read up on Sancar’s achievement and published work. As I was marveling at his latest achievement in the development of the DNA damage repair map of the entire human genome, based on which one is able to specify a gene of interest or a spot on the genome and obtain answers as to how the DNA damage is repaired, came the announcement that Sancar had won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry! It’s heartening that the standard of assessment of the ASBMB awards committee is comparable to that of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet. Thank you for the coverage. “Colorful characters” under Open Channels in the February 2015 issue is another enjoyable article on Nobel laureates.

– Vivian Tang


Re: Science on a visa, November 2015

Oh, that brings back many memories! Excellent write up, Raj. I have lived through this, and my wife is still struggling through the process.

– suirauqa


Re: President’s Message, November 2015

Dr. McKnight,

I hope you actually read this message and consider what the community has to say, since we as scientists should be willing to listen to debate and adjust our hypothesis if stronger arguments are presented. As a working biomedical researcher, I hope that you would use your position and this forum to address the real issues in the biomedical research enterprise rather than constantly castigating reviewers who are doing a tough job for little credit. Some of the real issues are 1) flat NIH budgets allocated by Congress for the last 12 years that have not tracked with inflation, decreasing the purchasing power of each grant dollar and increasing the need for more grants to get research done; 2) public and private academic research institutions that have viewed NIH funding as revenue and have consistently increased indirect costs, reducing the amounts of direct cost dollars available for research; 3) academic institutions that have required their faculty/staff to recover some or most of their salaries from extramural funding rather than putting more skin in the game and paying faculty/staff for their work through base dollars; 4) reduced public support for research that helps the entire community due to the politicization of the biomedical research enterprise and caricature of scientists and the scientific process; 5) loss of early- and midcareer scientists that have struggled to establish and maintain their research programs in the worst funding environment in memory. All of these things are very real issues that affect most if not all of biomedical scientists and are the root of the problem, not merely a symptom like reviewer behavior.

Dr. McKnight, you said in one of your first messages as president of ASBMB that you wanted to have a serious debate (President’s Message: “Wow!” November, 2014), but we have not seen any such debate yet. What we’ve seen is a superficial treatment of the problem by attacking some of our own (i.e., reviewers) using anecdotes rather than data instead of trying to address the real problems. Please use this forum and what remains of your time in this position to try to tackle real problems that can help the entire ASBMB membership (and all other scientists as well), rather than beating up the people in the trenches. If you cannot do this, I implore (incoming president Natalie) Ahn to start to addressing these issues in a real, constructive way when she takes over as ASBMB president. This is what we saw when Dr. Berg was president of ASBMB and is what we would hope to see from future leaders of this organization.

– Philapodia

My contention is that more money won’t solve the problem. Higher quality scientists are the solution. This requires that the great scientists of today take their responsibility of training young scientists more seriously. In other words, they need to invest in the training of their students beyond just offering cursory/high-level scientific feedback. We need to bring back the master-apprentice relationship that once pervaded science. Feeding more money to a system of scientific training that turns out poorly trained, ill-equipped scientists won’t improve anything. I suspect Steve McKnight trained in an era where the biomedical research enterprise was much smaller, and students had much more meaningful mentoring relationships. This is largely lost now, and this may account for the supposed mediocrity that is plaguing science. Nowadays, most top PIs are more interested in selling their science and attaining visibility rather than actually doing science. How can you honestly claim to run a world-class lab when you travel 25 weeks of the year? When scientists quit being scientists to become administrators and figureheads, it is a loss for trainees and ultimately a loss for science. Stop pumping more money and feeding universities an endless supply of cheap graduate student and postdoc labor. Ask established scientists to take a more active role in driving scientific projects and increase the efficiency of their research groups rather than simply throwing more money at them. Demand high-quality scientific training to be the norm rather than the exception. This is the adrenaline shot that science needs. Once we get this right, then we can talk about more money. But as it stands, we as scientists are failing the public.

– Shaq Jones

I strongly disagree. I think this idea that scientists today are substandard compared to past scientists (aka McKnight’s riffraff) is a red herring distracting from the real issues listed above and has little basis in actual fact. Just because you want to understand a system in more than superficial detail does not mean you are a low-quality scientist; it means that you think that the system is important enough to spend a significant proportion of your life (which we each only have one) studying and is a sign of intense focus and scientific curiosity. Try to develop a new therapeutic approach with CRISPR/Cas9 without doing the detail work to understand how the system actually works and what potential pitfalls may occur, and you risk causing great harm to patients and their families. There is a place for both grand innovation and detail work in modern science, and both need to be funded. In terms of publications, there is limited space in the glamour journals that everyone wants to get into (Science/Cell/Nature), and using publication in those type of journals as a surrogate for actually critically analyzing the quality of data in so-called lower tier journals has become a lazy way of looking at the quality of science. We’re supposed to critically review data — not only our own but also data of others.

Doing research takes money. You can’t do research without money, and control and distribution of money is unfortunately at the heart of how science functions these days. Those with money (i.e., those “great scientists”) can come up with innovative ideas because they have the luxury of time to think and try new things without putting their careers in jeopardy. Those supposed substandard scientists who don’t have much or any money (probably 85-plus percent of working scientists these days) can’t support staff or afford to do experiments to get money to do more experiments unless they constantly submit grants and hope to get lucky. Just like with rich people, money begets money, and those who don’t have money have a much harder time achieving the same level of success than those who have it. Merit only plays a part in who gets NIH money; there is a significant role of who you are and what you have done in the past.

The constant attack on young scientists (riffraff) by certain “elite” older scientists is analogous to every other societal situation where a privileged population is threatened by a new population and does what it can to retain control. Women getting the vote, civil rights, gay rights, etc. Perhaps it’s human nature, but this type of discrimination is not healthy and generally fails in the long run.

– Philapodia

What nuggets of information can we learn from this story? Well for one, this sentence is rather worrying: “Koshland was so impressed with the application that she and her colleagues recruited Allison from Texas to the University of California, Berkeley.” What we can learn is that 30 years ago it was perfectly OK for a reviewer to break confidentiality and headhunt a grant applicant on the basis of exciting (presumably unpublished) data in a proposal. Thankfully today’s NIH guidelines forbidding contact between reviewers and grantees, even post hoc, ensure that such unethical practices are rare.

– BamaSS

I think your inability to see past Steve’s provocative prose and point out a “breach of protocol” is unfortunate. You seem to have missed the whole point of this article. Science has turned into a game today where people try and sell trendy ideas rather than try to undertake rigorous, unbiased scientific inquiry. There isn’t any room for bold science today — just timid, safe and mediocre work coming from scientists desperately trying to preserve their research programs. So many papers, so little impact. It is no wonder that the public is losing faith in science. I wager even scientists are losing faith in the scientific enterprise.

– Shaq Jones