Thursday, February 12, 2015

We Need Population Control Not Climate Engineering

The National Research Council has just issued a report that advocates increased research into 'climate engineering', that is, trying to retard global warming through human manipulation of atmospheric processes (1).

The NRC report on climate engineering is both depressing and upsetting. It is depressing because it essentially admits that we are totally failing in our attempts to prevent climate change through reductions in emissions. It is upsetting because it reflects incredible hubris. Do the originators of the report really think that we can meddle with global atmospheric patterns without huge unintended consequences? Haven’t we learned anything about the unpredictability of technology?

To my mind research funds would be far better spent investigating novel ways to restrain the tidal wave of global population growth. That would certainly impact climate change. The much-vaunted ‘demographic transition’ seems to be sputtering as the UN revises its global population projections ever upward.


Friday, February 6, 2015

21st Century Cures Act: Driving Innovation in Drug Development?

The US House of Representative has a new initiative for biomedical R& D “the 21st Century Cures Act “ (1) .  While the overall goal of this initiative, to advance new therapies, is laudable, as usual the politicians have gotten the details screwed up. Essentially what this initiative does is to provide financial rewards such as increased patent lifetimes to companies that engage in research in targeted areas (eg Alzheimers). It also provides directives to the NIH to strategize research.

The first aspect is just off base. Why do we need to incentivize drug companies to conduct research in vital public health areas? Why not simply use the type of non-profit public-private partnerships that have been so successful in developing drugs for malaria, TB and other diseases of less-developed countries? (2). Do we really need to squander public resources to fatten the wallets of Big Pharma executives?

The second aspect amounts to an unfunded mandate for the NIH. What is really needed to stimulate R&D in this country is to get the NIH and other research agencies back on a growth path. 

2. see Science and Public Policy. 40: 393-405, 2013

Friday, January 16, 2015

More People, No Fish

This week’s SCIENCE has an interesting review on the loss of oceanic fauna (1). The review points out that the loss of terrestrial fauna over the last 50,000 years or so has been far greater than loss of marine fauna. However, it also notes that humans have only had the technology to seriously impact the oceans for a couple of hundred years. The review ends on a somewhat upbeat note saying that we can learn from past experience on land and devise ways to protect the oceans. However, I can’t help but being more pessimistic in light of the ever-growing human population that will result in greater demands on fisheries and increasing pollution of marine environments both locally and globally.

While marine sanctuaries and controls on fishing may be helpful as the article suggests, it is often not possible reverse the effects of extreme over-fishing; witness the failure of cod stocks to return to the Grand Banks after twenty years of protection. Perhaps more importantly increasing human populations and increased economic development are leading to widespread degradation of the marine environment just as they do on land. Agricultural run-off, destruction of coastal marshes for housing and fish-farms, release of plastics and other chemicals into the sea, as well as the global warming created by our carbon based economy will all accelerate as the human population increases. Poor fish!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Slow Career Development for Young Biomedical Scientists

In a recent commentary in PNAS (1) Ronald Daniels, the President of Johns Hopkins University, discusses the increasingly slow career progression for young scientists. He points out that the average age for attaining an initial medical school faculty appointment has gone up by about 5 years between 1980 and today while the average age for the first NIH R01 grant for MDs has gone from 38 to 45 yrs.  While Daniels mentions several possible contributory factors, clearly the key is the ever-increasing length of the postdoctoral training period. This in turn is built on the continuing over-production of biomedical Ph.Ds which raises the level of completion for ‘real’ jobs in academia or industry to impossible levels. 

As stated previously on this blog the solutions to this problem are first to reduce the supply of Ph.D trainees and second to begin to develop stable career paths in science that are distinct from the traditional professor/PI pathway. 


Friday, December 12, 2014

More on postdoc problems

An opinion piece in SCIENCE discusses ways to make research careers more stable, in part by limiting PhD production  (1). I agree with their analysis. Steps to limit PhD production and to introduce stable research career pathways for ‘non-PI’ scientists are clearly needed. But we have known this for some time. The problem is that both senior faculty members and their institutions have a strong self interest in maintaining the current situation. An ample supply of cheap and expendable labor is just too good to pass up.  We have commented on this several times in this blog.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Poor Prospects for Postdocs

This week's Nature (1) highlights two reports, one from the UK and one from the US, that describe the parlous state of the postdoctoral experience for biomedical PhDs. Reduced government support for research, the implosion of the pharmaceutical industry's in-house research, and in the US, cutbacks at state universities, have all limited job prospects. Nonetheless major universities continue to crank out biomedical PhDs.

This is nothing new. See previous posts on this blog elaborating the situation in more detail (2,3).




Friday, November 21, 2014

The Migration Dilemma: No we don’t want to hurt families-but-just how many people do we want in the USA?

Today President Obama announced his new immigration policy (1) largely designed to prevent deportations of illegal immigrants from breaking up families. Certainly our nation should not be too harsh on hard-working people who have come here for economic opportunity and who have had children born in the US. However, I can’t help but wonder if this policy will re-activate the floodtide of illegal immigration that has taken place over the last two decades but that has recently shown signs of subsiding.

We are often described as a nation of immigrants and as a descendant of immigrants it is uncomfortable for me to argue that the US should cease to provide opportunities for deserving people. However the great surge of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries occurred in a very different setting than today. In 1900 the US population was 76 million. Today it is 320 million and is rapidly climbing toward 500 million by mid-century primarily because of immigration and the higher fertility rate of immigrants (2).

This raises the question of how many people do we want in our nation? Do we really want 500 million, how about a billion?  Business interests always favor population growth–more people, more sales more profits. But what about the life-styles of average people? Do we really want to live in the sort of ultra-crowded, polluted, degraded environment that is typical of China and India today?

Another issue is jobs. The combination of competition from abroad in manufacturing and the increased use of automation and computers at all levels of economic activity is limiting employment prospects for Americans. Whether it’s a highly trained software engineer from Bangalore or a carpenter from Guatemala City, the net effect of immigration is to further reduce opportunities for Americans. For the first time in our history even college graduates are having a difficult time finding jobs. Slowing immigration wont solve the problems caused by globalization and automation, but it will mute the effects somewhat.  

The US can’t address global poverty by having the world’s poor move here. Indeed much poverty around the globe is due to over-population. To this observer the intelligent approach for our nation is a combination of stringent limits on immigration coupled with strong support for population control and economic development in the poorer nations of the world.