January 2010

Ring in the New


Here’s to the new year: May it be a damn sight better than the old one.

Pres-Mess---New-YearIt started out with such promise. We had a new president – one who promised to restore science to its rightful place in the councils of government (and, to our joy, he has). We had $10 billion in stimulus money for the National Institutes of Health to spend. Health-care reform looked imminent. The war in Iraq was winding down. I had only another one-and-a-half years as American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology president. All was well.

But as 2009 winds down, that feeling of optimism has given way to one of anxiety – almost of impending doom. Delight over the stimulus has become frustration with the NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research and the fear that the 2011 NIH budget will be disastrously small. Health-care reform is being held hostage by a small group of senators who either wish to use it as way of restricting abortion rights or, one is forced to conclude, who may be in the pockets of the insurance industry. As the war in Iraq winds down, the war in Afghanistan is growing larger. And I still have six months to go as ASBMB president.

I thought it might be a good time to take stock of the state of science in general, and the state of the ASBMB in particular, as we get ready to welcome in the first year of the second decade of the 21st century. I have to say that I think the state of science is good, though still threatened from the usual sources. And, I think the ASBMB is healthy but would be healthier if we had more young members.

Let me start with the ASBMB. Online is where it’s at. Last fall, we launched a new Web site for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and now the editorial side is making adjustments (see article on p. 10). Our two other journals, the Journal of Lipid Research and Molecular and Cellular Proteomics, also will be getting similar Web sites in the coming year. MCP is going online-only in 2010, and JBC and JLR will follow when the time is right for our users. Along with that, we soon will have a new Web site for ASBMB Today, replacing the old online pseudo-journal format. We think that these represent real improvements in how we deliver content to our members over the World Wide Web. The sites are meant to be easier to navigate, easier to browse and packed with more opportunities to find more information. Our publications are intended to serve you, our members, first and foremost. So, write to us and let us know what you think of the new Web sites. And, if you have suggestions, please let us hear from you. We will listen.

As I said, I am still concerned with the demographics of our membership. I know this is also a major concern of my successor, Suzanne Pfeffer (and while I’m at it, let me offer her my condol – er, my congratulations on becoming president-elect) and that she already has a number of exciting ideas for getting more young people to join the society and for improving the ways in which we serve our younger members. But we still need your help. Please, urge your best postdoctoral fellows to take advantage of our free-for-the-first-year membership offer. We believe that once they experience the benefits of membership, they will want to continue. They’re our lifeblood, and we are anemic at the moment.

Otherwise, the health of the society is good. Thanks to prudent fiscal management (which is to say I had no input into it whatsoever), our finances are in relatively good shape, and we have been able, despite the recession, to launch a few interesting new initiatives. One you will be reading more about in the coming months is a series of joint conferences in Latin America, sponsored by ASBMB and our sister society in Brazil. My counterpart in that society, Debora Foguel, and ASBMB past-President Bettie Sue Masters have taken the lead in getting this cooperation off the ground, for which I would like to convey my deepest thanks. The first meeting will take the form of an advanced school on the subject of biofuels, an area of biochemistry in which Brazil already is among the world’s leaders. Watch ASBMB Today for more details.

Finally, our annual meeting, to be held in Anaheim, Calif., in April 2010, is looking to be very popular. Advance registration is running hot and heavy, so be sure to get yours in to secure your place at the Woodstock of biochemistry. (OK, I admit that Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin won’t be there, but it will still be a great party.)

But, if the state of ASBMB is largely good, the same cannot be said of the state of science in general. As I write this, the U.S. Senate – the same Senate that seems to be using health-care reform as a football – has just passed an appropriations bill that calls for about a 2.3 percent increase in the NIH budget and about a 6.7 percent increase in the National Science Foundation budget. While the latter is on target with President Obama’s stated intent to double the NSF budget, the former is below the expected level of scientific inflation. It would put the 2010 NIH budget at just under $31 billion. My Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology counterparts and I have calculated that we need a 2011 appropriation for NIH of about $37 billion to avoid a catastrophic shrinkage of the NIH Research Project Grant Program (R01) pool when the stimulus winds down.

Of course, everything will depend on the state of the economy around this time next year, and, if you can predict that, you don’t need me to tell you anything. My guess is that we will see the gross domestic product, which I regard as a nearly useless statistic, grow by around 3 percent next year, which means the recession will be “officially” over. But I am also guessing that this will be a jobless recovery, by which I mean that unemployment will still be between 8 and 10 percent by the end of next year. If I’m right, a big boost for NIH will be very difficult to obtain – though not impossible – as the multiplier for NIH funds (the return to the economy for every dollar invested) is about $2.20.

Speaking of NIH, kudos to Jeremy M. Berg, the head of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, for managing to keep the payline at NIGMS for competing R01 applications at right around the 30th percentile, even when the stimulus money is not added in. I’m not going to ask him how he managed that particular feat of legerdemain when so many other NIH institute directors seemed to have had trouble doing so, but I suspect having fewer big science initiatives to fund didn’t hurt.

Health-care reform is turning out to have more cliffhangers than the last Indiana Jones film. Without getting into the politics of it, let me simply say that it’s going to be a very tough battle to get this passed. That’s nothing new: Seven previous U.S. presidents have tried, and failed, to reform the health-care system in this country (beginning with Woodrow Wilson, who almost succeeded in 1916 but was interrupted by a little something called World War I, and ending with Bill Clinton, whose failure still rankles), so, if Obama succeeds, it will be a monumental accomplishment no matter what the bill looks like. But, make no mistake about it, this present reform is not about controlling costs – it’s about getting everybody covered. There is no possibility that health-care costs will go down, for the long term, unless we address the soaring cost of end-of-life care and shift our mindset more toward prevention rather than treatment. All of this makes biomedical research an essential part of any real effort to get costs under control, which is another reason why I wouldn’t give up just yet on that $37 billion NIH budget for 2011.

Looking back on 2009, though, the most ominous sign I see that all is not right with the world of science is the continued efforts on the part of religious fundamentalists to inject religious doctrine into the teaching of science in our public schools. Their latest ploy masquerades as “critical thinking” or “freedom of expression” and takes the form of laws prohibiting someone from being dismissed from his or her job for teaching the alleged controversy about evolution, by which they mean that it’s perfectly OK for a so-called science teacher to present creationism, intelligent design and other Bible-in-science-clothing religious doctrines as legitimate alternatives to evolution, even though anyone who does so ought to be fired for incompetence. Don’t be fooled: Fundamentalists have no interest in critical thinking. They do not want debates about the truth. Their intention is to replace science with religious doctrine, and I don’t mean a choice of religions either. This is all about a very narrow, fundamentalist Christian point of view, one that seeks to replace evidence-based thinking with a blind faith in authority. It is very dangerous, it is not going away and it has to be fought.

And, for those of you in more secular Europe congratulating yourselves on not having this problem, let me point out to you that the American Association for the Advancement of Science ScienceInsider reported on Dec. 9 that Italy’s foremost science agency actually funded the publication of a creationist book authored by its own vice president (http://bit.ly/8NADZF). Entitled “Evolutionism: The Decline of an Hypothesis,” the book was funded by the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and authored by Roberto de Mattei, a professor of the history of Christianity and Catholicism at the European University of Rome and, as I said, a vice president of the council. The book is based on the proceedings of a conference on the same topic that was, believe it or not, sponsored by the council in February. Among its creationist claims, the book asserts that fossil-dating methods are wrong and that dinosaurs have been extinct for only 40,000 years. Now, you might think, Italy being a Catholic country, that the Roman Catholic Church was behind this somehow, but you’d be wrong. The fascinating thing about this is that physicist Nicola Cabibbo, president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the group of scientists who advise the Pope, has expressed strong disapproval of CNR funding such a book. “The Catholic Church has accepted the thesis of evolutionism,” he points out. All of which suggests to me that we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we make the strident voices of the Richard Dawkinses of the world our spokespeople. We have more in common with sensible people of faith than we sometimes realize, and we need to build bridges to them so we can join against the forces of ignorance.

So, here’s to the new year – may it be a damn sight better than the old one. And may we all be healthier, happier and living in a more peaceful, more rational world when it’s over.

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