June 2010

Muchas Gracias, Amigos


Pres-MesFirst off, let me apologize for not mentioning everybody. It’s just that there have been so many. When I took the job as president-elect of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, three years ago, I never imagined how much help I was going to need and how much I was going to get. But, before I start thanking people, there are a few things I want to say in this, my last President’s Message, about the state of the society, and the state of biochemistry, in mid-2010. I will start by congratulating Suzanne Pfeffer, the president-elect, on being chosen to lead the society starting in July of this year. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her since her election, and I can tell you that ASBMB is going to be in superb hands.

Right now, our society is in very good shape. I claim no credit for that; it was in very good shape when it was handed to me by Heidi Hamm. Of course, we took a hit in our investments just like everyone else when the financial crisis hit in late 2008, but I’m delighted to report that, thanks to the conservative nature of our investments and an outstanding job of managing them by Treasurer Merle S. Olson, the Finance Committee and ASBMB Director of Finance Steve Miller, our losses have been more than recouped. I only wish my 401K was doing as well.

But, the health of the society extends well beyond the financial. We just concluded a spectacularly successful annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., (the one place in the world where it’s actually a compliment to be called a “Mickey Mouse operation”). Every session I went to was extremely well attended, and the plenary lectures were outstanding. The Program Committee, headed by Laurie S. Kaguni, deserves rousing congratulations from all of us.

Our journals also are in fine shape, and we are fortunate to have, in Nancy Rodnan, a wonderful director of publications. Our flagship publication, the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which continues under the able leadership of Herbert Tabor, has just had both its mission statement and its website overhauled. I urge you to check both out, and please consider it for your next hot paper. The Journal of Lipid Research is the leading publication in its field, as is Molecular and Cellular Proteomics, which has, as of this year, become an entirely online journal, presaging what I think is an unstoppable trend that will sweep across all of scientific publishing. And speaking of new websites, I hope you’ve had a chance to look at the new online site for ASBMB Today. When I became president, one of my goals was to make ASBMB Today must reading for our members. I think we’ve gone a long way toward achieving that goal, and it’s due largely to the tireless and creative efforts of its editor, Nicole Kresge. She’s been kind enough to allow me free reign to be as provocative and, I hope, entertaining as possible in my president’s messages, and thanks to her, it’s been a lot of fun writing them.

I particularly am proud of the public affairs work the society has done over the past two years. Under the leadership first of Ralph Bradshaw and now William Merrick, our Public Affairs Advisory Committee (more-than-ably assisted by Peter Farnham, our public affairs director, and a series of superb science policy fellows, including the current holder of that title, Kyle Brown) has raised the profile of the society in Washington enormously. The ASBMB is a major player in the public affairs work of FASEB and the Coalition for Life Sciences and has had a leadership role in matters ranging from the stimulus package, to National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation funding levels, to the battle between creationism and evolution in our public schools.

Not everything is perfect, of course. We face some major challenges in the coming years, ranging from the winds of change that are sweeping over all scientific journals to the task of keeping a large and diverse scientific meeting interesting. The challenge I remain most concerned about, however, is our membership: it is still too densely populated with middle-aged, white male academics. We need more minority members, more female members, more foreign members, more members from industry and, especially, more young members. I am encouraged that Suzanne plans to make this issue one of the focuses of her presidency, and I wish her all the best in tackling it.

Many of our challenges, of course, are a reflection of the challenges facing science itself. Some of the biggest of these are monetary. Unless the NIH budget is increased substantially in 2011, we face a “cliff” the size of the Grand Canyon, in the form of far too many proposals and not nearly enough money to fund even the very best. In addition, increasingly, we are seeing the direction of science dictated from the top down, by a small number of powerful scientists, funding agency bureaucrats and patient advocacy-driven congressional mandates, rather than from the bottom up by the ideas of individual investigators. My predecessor, Heidi Hamm, first sounded the alarm about this trend, and ASBMB has mobilized our fellow societies, through the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, in an attempt to turn the tide. The fight is far from won, and the battle will continue on Suzanne’s watch, but everyone needs to be mindful of this problem and agitate to restore investigator-driven science to its rightful place as the driver of our priorities.

Years of lean funding have led to a climate that is discouraging some of our best young people from entering, or remaining in, science. They also are bleeding away a generation of mid-career investigators just when their leadership is needed most at many institutions. I don’t know whether the answer lies in a commitment by the government to provide stable funding for our major grant-making agencies or in a reduction in the size of all awards so that more can be funded, or both, but, I do know that the roller coaster must stop. Unfortunately, that may depend on a healthy, growing economy, and your guess is as good as mine about the prospects for that.

Biochemistry itself also is at something of a cross roads. The quintessential reductionist science, it is being eclipsed in some quarters by the frenetic data-gathering efforts of genomics (and other “-omics”) and the mathematically driven modeling of systems biology. I, for one, remain unconvinced that reams of data inevitably lead to big insights, and that to model something means you understand it in depth. For me, biochemistry remains a vital and essential science, as important a part of the efforts of modern biology as any other discipline. But, I think we need to do a better job than we have in making that case to young scientists, the funding agencies, our governments and the lay public. Integrating some of the methods from genetics, genomics and systems biology into our own work might not be a bad idea either.

I’ll continue to write about all this, of course, in my regular monthly column for Genome Biology, as well as in occasional opinion pieces for BMC Biology and EMBO Reports. I may even revisit these pages from time-to-time, as I love the audience they reach. But for now, it’s time for El Presidente, as one member called him, to say “Adios.”

From time to time, members have asked me if there was anything that surprised me about being president. It probably was the easiest question I’ve had to answer. When I started this job, I liked ASBMB a lot, but, I didn’t love it. I do now, and that was something I never expected to happen. You normally don’t love something as impersonal as an organization, but I was amazed at how easy it was to love ASBMB once I really got to know it. That was entirely due to the people involved with it, and I want to say thanks to all of them from the bottom of my heart.

First and foremost, my heartfelt gratitude goes to Barbara Gordon, the society’s executive director, for showing me the ropes and keeping this chronic procrastinator mindful of his duties. Her patience, good humor and all-around competence were a constant source of support and encouragement. I can say pretty much the same about Jessica Homa, Joan Geiling, Sarah Crespi, and all the ASBMB staff (too numerous to mention here, but see http://bit.ly/cSQTJH for a complete list). The dedication that they have to the society is heart-warming, and their tireless efforts on its behalf are one of the main reasons for its continued success.

For more information

• Listen to a series of  podcast interviews with Gregory Petsko.

•A symposium celebrating the 30- year collaboration between Gregory Petsko and Dagmar Ringe.

I must not forget to offer my thanks, and my deep respect, to those members who devote their time and efforts to our council and to our standing committees as well (a list can be found at http://bit.ly/cetJQB). It is to them, not the President, that the real work of governing the society falls, and we have a remarkable group carrying that out. You see, I rapidly came to understand that there must be something special about ASBMB if so many terrific scientists, all of whom are incredibly busy, would make its service a priority in their lives. That was when I realized that I had started to feel more than just a liking for it.

Last, and by no means least, I want to say thank you to you, our members. Thank you for making biochemistry and molecular biology as vital and relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. Thank you for reading our journals and paying your dues and coming to our meetings. Thank you for upholding the high standards of our profession in all that you do. Thank you for the advice you gave me during my time in office— even when I didn’t take it, I assure you I listened to it and I valued it. Thank you for writing to ASBMB Today and making its letter pages a vibrant source of debate. Thank you for your praise, your suggestions, your criticism, your complaints and your good wishes. I needed every bit of it. Most of all, thank you for caring. Don’t ever stop.

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