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.  


Friday, November 7, 2014

Prepare to feed the masses? Or push the population curve?

A recent report (1) from the Earth Institute at Columbia University discusses improved prospects for food production in Africa, indicating that the continent may be able to feed itself despite a projected population increase to 2 billion by 2050.  While improved food production is certainly good news, the report simply accepts the idea that there must be a huge increase in population over the next few decades. Even if hundreds of millions of additional people can be fed, their existence will wreak havoc on the planet. Presumably the additional billion Africans, along with similarly surging populations in south Asia and elsewhere, will aspire to American style (or at least Chinese style) affluence with the attendant disastrous impacts on resource use, pollution, species extinction and global warming. In Africa and around the developing world, investments in agriculture and industrialization dwarf investments in population control. Maybe priorities should be reversed.  


Friday, September 26, 2014

Population Growth and the Ebola Epidemic

The tragic spread of Ebola virus in Africa has been discussed at length as a failure of public health systems resulting from inept governance and from poverty. However, a root cause of the epidemic lies in the rapid and unchecked population growth in Africa.  Unlike developing countries in other parts of the world, African nations currently do not seem to be undergoing the ‘demographic transition’ that associates rising GDPs with falling fertility (1). The rapid increase in population sets the stage for transmission of diseases such as Ebola in two ways. First, by migration of people from overcrowded agricultural land to forest areas where more contact with animal disease vectors is possible. Second, by the ever-increasing populations in congested urban slum area where disease transmission is facilitated. Effective control of infectious disease epidemics in Africa (and elsewhere) must including more aggressive family planning services.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

New Hope for Age-Related Eye Diseases

The announcement of a clinical trial of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) in Japan (1) has somewhat of a personal aspect for me.  I have recently been having some retinal problems consequent to a mishandled cataract operation.  This has made me very aware both of how important and how delicate our visual systems are. The Japanese trial will use iPS cells in patients suffering from age related macular degeneration, a common but difficult to treat eye disease. Since the retinal cells to be implanted will derive from the patient's own cells via the iPS approach, hopefully there will be no immune rejection.

As an older person I cheer the push toward stem cell therapies. It will probably come too late for my generation, but  hopefully a combination of stem cell and genetic technologies will eventually be able to attenuate many debilities that accrue with age.


Friday, September 12, 2014

GDF11- the Elixir of Youth??

A feature article in SCIENCE this week (1) summarized some very impressive work from Amy Wagers (Harvard) and other researchers on blood factors that seem able to partially reverse age-related tissue degeneration. Several groups have used a technique termed parabiosis to establish a shared circulation between old and young mice.  This resulted in improved function in muscles, heart, and nerves of the older mice. One possibility is that blood factors from young mice restore the ability of stem cells in older animals to repopulate damaged tissues. In an exciting new development Wagers and colleagues have identified a protein termed GDF11 as the rejuvenating blood factor. GDF11 is a member of the TGB-beta family of growth factors that regulate many aspects of tissue differentiation and growth.

These results would seem to open up new opportunities for clinical approaches that address ageing per se rather than individual diseases associated with ageing. Some strong arguments have been made that this approach would make a much greater contribution to human health and longevity than disease specific therapies (2).