Category Archives: Follies of the Human Condition

How bad is the NIH budget really?

In the blowback to Francis Collins’ comments about budget cuts delaying an Ebola vaccine, there is a lot of confusion going around about just how much the NIH budget declined.

The worst offender is the usually very good Sarah Kliff at Vox.com, who writes:

The NIH’s budget rose rapidly during the early 2000s, growing from $17 billion in 2000 to a peak of $31 billion in 2010. This meant more money for everything…

Funding then began to decline in 2010 and has continued to fall slightly over the past four years (this was during a period when Obama was in the White House, Democrats controlled the Senate, and Republicans controlled the House). By 2013, funding was down to $29.3 billion. These figures do not account for inflation.

Inflation – there’s the rub. Because when you do account for inflation, you see that the NIH budget was in decline long before 2010 – in fact things started to go south after 2004, as the AAAS budget analysis shows:

And depending on how you make the inflation adjustment, things can look even worse – you hear claims of a 20% decline tossed around. To understand how this works, lets look at the numbers themselves: Continue reading

#ShakesPeerReview

Screenshot 2014-10-26 19.47.29It has oft been our wont on a Friday to indulge in a bit of sciencing of movie quotes – a practice we have saddled with the Twitter sobriquet #SCInema. This Friday, however, was not like most Fridays. For, on this Friday, my friends at the Science for the People podcast released a show featuring interviews with author Dan Falk and scholar Stanley Wells entitled “Science and Shakespeare.

So, instead of putting the science in movie quotes, we brought the science to the works of The Bard with the hashtag #ShakesPeerReview. It was met with great enthusiasm by science-y folk who were eager to show-off that their knowledge of Shakespeare and their senses of humor (these things do not always go together).

My favorite effort, among many potential favorites, may be this one from Shane Caldwell.

Screenshot 2014-10-26 19.43.13

You can find a storify of #ShakesPeerReview tweets here.

Will the future run out of technology?

If you haven’t seen it, this opinionated, provocative, and forceful essay by Bruce Gibney at Founder’s Fund is a great read. Starting with the question of why venture capital return has generally sucked over the past two decades, he delves into issue of real vs. fake technology, why we’ve been too quick to be satisfied with incremental progress, and whether there is that much revolutionary technology left to invent.

“What happened to the future?”:

Have we reached the end of the line, a sort of technological end of history? Once every last retailer migrates onto the Internet, will that be it? Is the developed world really developed, full stop? Again, it may be helpful to revisit previous conceptions of the future to see if there are any areas where VC might yet profitably invest.

In 1958, Ford introduced the Nucleon, an atom-powered, El Camino-shaped concept car. From the perspective of the present, the Nucleon seems audacious to the point of idiocy, but consider at the time Nautilus, the first atomic submarine, had just been launched in 1954 (and that less than ten years after the first atomic bomb). The Nucleon was ambitious – and a marketing gimmick, to be sure – but it was not entirely out of the realm of reason. Ten years later, in 1968, Arthur C. Clarke predicted imminent commercial space travel and genuine (if erratic) artificial intelligences. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was fiction, of course, but again, its future didn’t seem implausible at the time; the Apollo program was ready to put Armstrong on the moon less than a decade after Gagarin, and computers were becoming common place just a few years after Kilby and Noyce dreamed up the integrated circuit. The future envisioned from the perspective of the 1960s was hard to get to, but not impossible, and people were willing to entertain the idea. We now laugh at the Nucleon and Pan Am to the moon while applauding underpowered hybrid cars and Easyjet, and that’s sad. The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we’re waiting for today, half a century later. Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo.

There are major exceptions: as we’ve seen, computers and communication technologies advanced enormously (even if Windows 2000 is a far cry from Hal 9000) and the Internet has evolved into something far more powerful and pervasive than its architects had ever hoped for. But a lot of what seemed futuristic then remains futuristic now, in part because these technologies never received the sustained funding lavished on the electronics industries. Commercializing the technologies that have languished seems as good a place as any to start looking for ideas

Science for the People: Science & Shakespeare

sftpThis week, Science for the People looks at the way science influenced the work of the greatest author in English, and what modern scholars think about its origins. We’re joined by journalist and author Dan Falk, to talk about his book The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. And we’ll speak to Shakespeare scholar and blogger Stanley Wells, for his perspective on the question of who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

Nature on the PhD Glut

This week Nature covers the online response to Eve Marder’s piece in eLife arguing that we shouldn’t shrink PhD programs. The article mentions my response and adds a few more comments by people with different perspectives. Go over and read it, and chime in with your opinions!