Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Science Policy and the H-1 Visa Dilemma

Like many senior academics, I have often helped young colleagues from other countries who intend to pursue their careers in the USA to obtain H-1B visas.  In most cases the goal was to allow these young scientists to be able to apply for federal grants and start building an academic career. In general I think this process has been quite positive for American science. An interesting recent sidelight is, that with the growth of research support in countries such as China and India, an increasing proportion of foreign scholars wants to return home rather than develop a career here.

However, the relatively benign process of seeking permanent residency for foreign scientists trained at US universities stands in stark contrast to the current attempts of big technology companies to import inexpensive foreign engineers and technologists on a massive scale. The immigration legislation currently pending in Congress (1) will make it much easier for that to happen.  The companies claim that they cannot fill available high tech jobs with people in the US. This is really risible! With today’s historically high unemployment including many tens of thousands of technically trained people desperately seeking work, it strains credulity to think that we need to import foreign technologists. Obviously these companies simply want to fill their positions with people who will work for lower salaries than Americans, and who will accept a form of indentured servitude that ties the worker to the company via the visa. In particular this thrust is explicitly designed to get rid of older US workers and replace them with young, poorly paid foreign workers (2).  This is a perfect example of corporate shortsightedness. Each company expects to reduce its costs, yet counts on a thriving market in the US to sustain its products. As Henry Ford found long ago, you need to pay workers enough to buy your products. Apparently corporate America has forgotten this fundamental lesson.

Many responsible organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have opposed the new legislation (3). Additionally there are all sorts of loopholes in the current program that allow more visas than the stated limits (4). But perhaps the most telling argument against increasing the visa pool is a simple economic one. If there really were such a need for tech workers then compensation for those workers should have increased, but this has not happened (5). Indeed, as we have stated many times in this blog, the US is probably already producing more scientists and engineers than the economy can absorb.  The notion promoted by the tech companies that only by foreign recruitment will we have access to the 'best and brightest' technologists has been thoroughly de-bunked in a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute (6).

This would be a good time for those of us in the R & D game to make our voices heard about the negative consequences of the proposed immigration changes.

(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/opinion/americas-genius-glut.html?_r=2&

(6) http://www.epi.org/publication/bp356-foreign-students-best-brightest-immigration-policy/

Friday, April 12, 2013

Treating disease with electrons: the emergence of electroceuticals.

As described in a recent article in NATURE, the emergent field of ‘electroceuticals’ is an exciting new thrust for therapeutic research. GSK should be congratulated for boldly seeking to catalyze rapid development of this area. The connections are readily apparent between the electroceutical approach, the Brain Activity Map efforts announced recently, and continuing developments in nanotechnology.

However, this novel approach comes with many questions and problems. Assuming that progress is made in treating a disease state using neuronal stimulation, how does one go about assessing benefit versus risk? In conventional drug discovery there are well-established approaches for evaluating potential toxicities at the pre-clinical and clinical levels. But it is not clear yet how risk assessment will be conducted in the new realm of electroceuticals where therapies may need to be based on the unique neuronal wiring patterns of individuals. An interesting issue for the future.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Brain Activity Map (BAM): The Pluses and Minuses of Science Policy in the Making.

As recently outlined in SCIENCE and other journals, as well as in the general media, President Obama’s announcement of the BAM has caused quite a stir. While many scientists welcome this large new thrust in neuroscience, others question the technological feasibility of the project. It is interesting that much of the initial energy and organization for this concept came from non-neuroscientists and from private groups such as the Kavli Foundation rather than arising from the NIH’s neuroscience mainstream.

Whether or not the BAM project becomes a major scientific success, it is a notable example of how science policy decisions are made. A relatively small group of scientists and foundation people were able to create a compelling vision and then ‘sell’ it to senior policy makers. This will entrain a significant new investment in neuroscience and in the technology needed to pursue the project’s goals.

In the broadest sense it will be good to see any new investment in basic science. However, is the BAM the very best use of the ~ $100M/year research investment? In terms of overall global good would the money be better spent on malaria research? On better antibiotics for drug resistant bacteria? On early detection of tumors?

The BAM episode highlights the fact that we do not have a systemic approach to assessing the nation’s need for research and development. While such approaches have been suggested (1) they have never really been implemented. For the most part, science policy, especially in the biomedical arena, is driven by pressures from interest groups, primarily patient advocacy organizations. The enormous investment in HIV research is a paramount example of this. While the interests of patients clearly need to be represented, sometimes disease-focused research is not the most rapid path to progress.  That is why the BAM project is so interesting; like its Genome Project predecessor, it is primarily driven by basic research issues rather than having a disease focus.

Thus the BAM project may provide a model for scientists in other areas to energize their fields with new funding. Unfortunately it also exemplifies the lack of a logical, systemic approach to public funding of science.

(1) Guston, D. & Sarewitz, D. (2002). Real-Time Technology Assessment. Technology in Society, 24(1-2), 93-109.