Five Reasons the Government Should Fund Science

So Trump’s Office of Management and Budget pick, Mick Mulvaney,  apparently doesn’t believe the government should fund science. This is argument I hear with some regularity from certain quarters, and I have written multiple rebuttals over the past couple of years in my space at Pacific Standard. Here are six articles and five reasons why the government should fund science:

  1. It provides the basic understanding of disease mechanisms, without which drug companies can’t make effective drugs.
  2. Philanthropy is not enough to make up for government funding.
  3. Government-funded science has brought huge economic benefits by transforming how we eat, travel, communicate, and care for our health.
  4. Government-funded, curiosity-driven science has a history of huge payoffs.
  5. Government-funded science is how we build a well-trained scientific workforce.

Reading Regulatory DNA, or My Attempt to Explain What I Do

At the end of October, our paper on gene regulation in the retina was published in Cell Reports. (We paid good money for open access, so go ahead, click the link – there’s no paywall.) Our editor asked us if we wanted to try two things to help explain our work to our broader audience. The first is Figure360, a brief video guide to one figure in our paper. This is still fairly technical; it’s how I might explain our work in a conference poster presentation.

The second way we were invited to explain our work was in an informal post on the Cell Reporter blog. Here I tried to explain what we did in a way that would make sense to my mother. (Who has a bachelor’s degree in biology, so at least I had a chance)  My mother’s response: “I read it 3 times to better understand it.  It is a difficult topic.” In other words, I failed to make sense…

It’s not the most jargon-free thing I’ve written, but for your edification and enlightenment, I’m posting the link here. Check it out to understand massively parallel reporter gene assays and our Goldilocks theory of gene expression.



Climate change has altered nearly all of the planet’s ecosystems

It looks like we’re going to have a climate change denier heading up the EPA, Oklahoma’s attorney general Scott Pruitt, who has spent the Obama administration suing the agency he will now lead. So we’ll be hearing a lot about whether the science is “settled” and the uncertainty in climate scientists forecast.

As you listen to these debates, the thing to know is that climate change isn’t just about what might happen in the future. It has already radically altered the planet in ways that may be invisible to those of us who live in wealthy countries, but not to just about all life on Earth. As a recent review of the documented biological impacts of climate change puts it, “Climate change impacts have now been documented across every ecosystem on Earth.”

Last month I wrote about this story for Pacific Standard. The key point is one to keep in mind as we confront denialism in the Trump administration:

The consequences of widespread and rapid changes to something as complex as the world’s ecosystems are difficult to predict. The unpredictability of these consequences has been used as an excuse to dismiss them and paint scientists as alarmists. But unpredictability is exactly what should concern us: Our civilization, including our agriculture, water usage, population geography, and public-health measures, are adapted to fit the global climate that we live in. The prospect of further broad, unpredictable shifts to the world’s ecosystems should spur us to action, not complacency. As the authors of the Science paper write, “humanity depends on intact, functioning ecosystems for a range of goods and services.” For most life in those ecosystems, climate change is not a future event, but a present reality.



Newton and Thomas Pynchon

If you’re a fan of Thomas Pynchon, you may be interested in something I wrote about Newton, thermodynamics, and Pynchon’s story “Entropy” over at

The gist of it is this: Pynchon signed two copies of his famous story “Entropy” with the inscription F = ma, that is, Newton’s second law. Why would he do that? What does Newton’s second law have to do with entropy?

I discuss the science that relates F = ma to entropy, and speculate on what Pynchon might have meant.

And BTW, stay tuned for more on science in Pynchon’s work.

The FDA is not holding back effective drugs

It’s going unnoticed amidst the news of the rolling disaster that is the incoming Trump administration, but our lame duck Congress has just passed a major piece of legislation called the 21st century cures act. Scientists are happy about the extra $5 billion this bill gives to the NIH – sort of. That money has to go to specific programs, like the Precision Medicine Initiative and Biden’s Moonshot program, rather than being put into the general funds of the NIH, meaning that Congress, and not the NIH, is deciding what specific research to fund. That’s generally not a good idea, but more money toward broad research and translational initiatives like cancer and precision medicine is still a net win.

More controversial are the FDA provisions of this bill. The bill pushes the FDA to take into account other, often less rigorous types of clinical studies when it decides whether or not to approve a new drug. Some worry that this means drug companies will have more leeway to push unsafe or ineffective drugs on the market. I’m more ambivalent – there are cases (drugs for rare diseases) when double blind randomized clinical trials may not be right, and the FDA should have the flexibility to demand the best evidence appropriate to each case. If – and this is a big if as we look ahead – we trust that the FDA can stand up to industry pressure, than giving them more flexibility to follow best scientific practices is the way to go.

My bigger problem with the FDA provisions are that the premise is flawed. As I write in Pacific Standard this week, the bill’s sponsors argue that, by cutting regulations and red tape at the FDA, we’ll free new cures that are just waiting to be put into the hands of patients. That’s wrong – the FDA is not the rate limiting step here. There is no backlog of effective new drugs just waiting to be approved.

Go check out my piece for the details. The rate limiting step is the science. Medical science is hard, and diseases are understood imperfectly. If you want more effective drugs faster, we need to invest more in research.