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Further comments on the superbug controversy

with 5 comments

Since I blogged about the superbug controversy in India, there have been a few other pieces on the issue. In particular there are two blogs that I would like to comment on.

Firstly, take this blog, part of the Indian National Interest community, which is apparently an attempt to refute my earlier post. I usually strongly endorse the opinions expressed in the INI domain, but I have to politely (not really, but I try to be nice) disagree with the viewpoints in the blog.

Before that, I must applaud the blogger for raising concerns about Indian health-care. I am in total agreement with the author about the need for India to employ stringent medical procedures to control the spread of this particular resistance and prevent future outbreaks.

What I disagree with and do not understand is the rest of his rather absurd arguments.

Especially, lines like:

…the exaggeration, the dramatization of the threat, the hyphenation with Pakistan, etc. (emphasis mine)

do not make sense. I hate as much as the next person, the collectivization of the subcontinental people under a single name. But I doubt bacterial organisms care much for geopolitical boundaries.

Anyway, the author goes on to say:

Scores of revelations (this blog has tried to document as many of them as it could) about the pharma industry in the last two decades literally implores us to treat any thing that they are behind, with scepticism first and acceptance later.

We need to adopt a two-pronged strategy going forward as these kinds of ‘attacks’ are bound to emerge. They are thinly-disguised protectionism from the economically beleaguered West, whether or not they are orchestrated at the sovereign level.

….

That does not mean I should accept this report with all its shades and hues.

The whole thrust of the blog’s argument – if one may accord that respect to the writings – is that pharmaceutical companies are not to be trusted. Ergo we shouldn’t trust this study and protest our heads off.

Firstly, the study was not a pharmaceutical company study. Yes, I am aware of the partial sponsorship by Wellcome and this ‘conflict of interest’ issue has already been explained in many places. [However, I do also ask how Wellcome gains anything from a paper that talks about superbugs in India when they (or any other pharmas really) do not have a drug to kill these organisms? But that is a separate matter]

Further, if we do extend this logic of the one bad apple, then, given the lack of stellar record of Indian scientists and doctors in the honesty department (let’s not even go into the politicians and the media), we should not really believe anything they say about the results in this particular journal paper!

What particularly bothers me about the post is that there’s hardly any attempt to directly engage the scientific merits of the article (other than use of quotes around the word ‘research’, which hardly justifies as a critique). Rather, the blog simply puts forward the nebulous idea of some Western extra-governmental entity insidiously planning to bring down the Indian health-care tourism industry one scientific journal publication at a time (why the same entities have not attacked other places such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Costa Rica etc which also has a thriving medical tourism industry, I do not know).

It is sad that a blog hosted by a portal that frames serious policy matters relating to India, deems fit to advance conspiracy theories on shaky grounds with zero evidence.

Note: I am not saying that India should sit back and not react at all to the publication. But doing so in the framework of ‘the west is out to get us’ media show is wrong.

———————-

On the other end of the spectrum, Charakan, an MD from India, has written a very insightful post on this issue, which explains a lot of the science behind the bacterial resistance and tries to separate the facts from myths. I highly recommend reading the article in full.

I do however have a comment to make about this section:

The article in Lancet says
It is disturbing, in context, to read calls in the popular press for UK patients to opt for corrective surgery in India with the aim of saving the NHS money. As our data show, such a proposal might ultimately cost the NHS substantially more than the short-term saving and we would strongly advise against such proposals’.
This is an unscientific comment not based on any data.The authors have not proved that NDM 1 enzyme producing bacteria in UK was imported from India. More than 50% of patients in UK detected to have NDM 1 has never traveled to South Asia.Also the comment is not taking into consideration other groups and sub groups of Carbapenemase enzyme producing bacteria which are more prevalent in UK than in India.

The author of the article in Lancet seems to show undue haste in blaming medical tourism for antibiotic resistance in UK.

It is a valid argument weather the authors have overreached in ascribing all the bacterial infection in UK cases to South Asia. It is an unfortunate tendency on the part of scientific authors to sometimes over-interpret their data, usually in the Discussions section of the paper. Reviewers often let this slide as well.

However, in this particular case, I don’t think it is a huge stretch. The authors are commenting within the framework of a particular question: does NHS’ plan to reduce cost by outsourcing surgeries to India make sense? They conclude that this may not be cost-effective in the long run due to the dangers of superbug infections. Given the data showing incidences of such bugs showing up in India, it is perhaps not a wholly unreasonable point to make.

Still, the authors of the paper could have phrased it differently.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

August 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Coffee, ‘Johnny Z & the Camaros’, with some science in between…

with 3 comments

[was going to post over the weekend, but procrastination ensued. as usual]

A great week at San Francisco for the Biophysical Society annual meeting, ending rather badly with two weary hours at the San Diego airport because I am a dunce who manages to lose car keys while waiting for the luggage! (To top it off,  apparently these fob-thingies are some ultra super-duper gadgetry that requires NASA scientists to make and a pretty penny to replace. Gah.)

But overall, one of the pleasanter conferences I’ve been to. Some quick thoughts on food & drink (most important of course), the conference and the city. Real sciency stuff for a separate blog.

Food and Drink (mainly limited to places around the Moscone convention center and Union Square):

  • Blue Bottle Coffee: A case of beer to Purely Narcotic for this recommendation. It’s hidden away from the main streets (the Mint Plaza location), so I wouldn’t have found it on my own.  But so glad to finally be able to walk into a coffee shop in the US, order a  Long Black Americano and not worry about it being served in gigantic saucers filled with water to kill the taste (actually, made a fool of myself by starting to explain that I wanted the regular cup size, only to be stared at with a ‘…but that’s what we do anyway’).  Of course, the quality of the roast itself is top-notch and the barista approaches the pulling of each cup with zen-like devotion. Their brioches, and other assorted sweets and savouries are yum as well. No better way to open the day.
  • Samovar Tea Lounge: Just above the convention center in the Yerba Buena gardens and usual lunch-spot. Bit of new-age pretentiousness about the place, but great selection of teas and – this turned out to important after nights of drinking – healthy food.
  • Papalotes: This one was recommended via Twitter as well by geetika1255 (so that settles the question of whether Twitter serves any purpose?) and has gained fame recently with their chef beating Bobby Flay in a burrito throw-down. Therefore, as expected, there was a huge crowd outside the smallish place in the Mission area. But they did an admirable logistical job of seating people just as their food was about to be ready and then politely moving them out for the next batch. Food was good, everything was freshly grilled etc. But coming from San Diego, with its Mexican-food-at-every-corner-ness, it wasn’t such an overly exciting experience. The Aussies were suitably impressed though.
  • Tropisueno: Stepped in only because it was next to the convention center and it was pouring.  Came out very satisfied with the  Mexican fare here  – their spices were quite exquisite. But the margarita with agave nectar and house salt (whatever it was) was the winner – nice kick to it without overpowering. Would highly recommend.
  • Pakhwan: Went here for a dinner partly out of nostalgia, partly because the Aussie contingent were craving for ‘Indian-style rice’ (I assumed they wanted biryani). This hole-in-the-wall place on O’Farell St had sustained us during my previous visit (seven years ago) for the same conference – back when we were PIGS. They have an actual tandoor in there, so both the tandoori chicken and the Bihari kebabs were moist and succulent. The began bhartha was wiped clean off the plate. Biryanis were so-so.
  • The Daily Grill: The bar at the hotel I stayed; not too memorable other than the fact I got into a mild argument with the bartendress about how a Sazerac should be made (she was shaking the stuff, and I was telling her to stir) – but I bowed to the fact that she’d been bartending much much longer than I’d been making Sazeracs. I ended up drinking two of her concoctions and then going back later in the week for more. Now if it was a Martini, I’d have fought till death (though I doubt a good bartender would dare to shake when asked for stirred martini).
  • Johnny Folley’s Irish Pub: Any place that serves Guinness does well by me – thusly, I have a built-in stop function that kicks in whenever I walk by an Irish pub. However, was it just me or their Guinness a wee bit watery? I had the Black and Tan to begin with and thought the less then usual robustness was just the layers mixing in too quickly. But subsequent drinking of just Guinness on its own was less than satisfying as well. Oh well, the lamb shanks more than made up for the drink.
  • Lefty O’Doul’s: Didn’t have any food here (seemed like diner-style food) but had a few beers with friends on the first day. Had to comment because of the really nice waitress who served our drinks. It is rare to find someone reciting from memory the whole lot of 12 beers on tap – from light to the heavy -  in order. Was also amazed how at the end of it, she helpfully pointed out how much each person owed without actually splitting the bill. Way to go.
  • Gold Dust Lounge: Velvets couches, golden chandeliers, old oil paintings, statue of a gold-rusher as you walk in – a funky little place, with almost a dive bar-ish atmosphere.  Easily the best place to hang-out after a tiring day at the convention. A bit pricey for the beers – but they have margarita specials ($3.50) till 830p. However, after 830p is the time to be hanging out there when Johnny Z and the Camaros sit behind a cramped bar-space and belt out 60-80s hits.  More than the music, it’s old Johnny Z’s dry wit which makes it a lot of fun. Don’t walk in without expecting bit of borderline insults (I got the usual, Indian-must-be-call-center-dude-with-funny-accent treatment *yawn*). For a couple of bucks in tips, they’ll take requests (just don’t ask them to play Bon Jovi). Made my friend happy by playing Land Down Under. Truly mixed crowd as well – everyone from AARP members to wannabe hipsters, with equal parts regulars and tourists (a few nerdy biophysicists walked in as well, and were made appropriately made fun of by the aforementioned Johnny Z).  If you do head out there, take plenty of cash – they don’t do cards. Expect a surly waitress, or two.

The actual conference:

  • Bummed out by the lack of wi-fi in vast areas of the conference center. For a conference that was promoting the use of blogging (BPS had four official bloggers at the event) and Twitter to disseminate information, this was a huge fail.
  • Poor planning for many of the talks – sessions that are historically always well attended (anything to do with ion channels), were given smaller rooms with hardly any standing areas left while concurrent sessions went empty. Also the National Lecture by Roger Tsien was filled out very quickly, which was bit of a downer, but we did get to hear and see the presentation in a different room. Other than these minor issues, a good conference, as usual.
  • Good science, but nothing earth-shattering, no disruptive technologies. A few cool ‘out-of-the-box’ applications for existing technologies. Old controversies still raging even as participants have mellowed down. Roger Tsien’s lecture was wonderful as usual. His lab has succeeded in developing imaging techniques by which tumor cells in the living body can be highlighted by fluorescent light. This helps surgeons in cutting out the majority of the tumor without relying on guess-work. Even better, the tumor cells can be contrasted to important tissues like the nerve cells, which surgeons need to avoid. Current technologies have worked exceedingly well in mouse models. Next – clinical applications in humans.
  • Personally, the conference was a huge boost in terms of networking and meeting up with lots of people. There are many regulars at this conference, and catching up with them on the edges of the actual sessions is satisfying. I actually get much more scientific information  and exchange of ideas this way  than attending actual talks. It also feels good when someone you’d interviewed with once for a postdoc job five years and haven’t seen for a while remembers your name and interests very well.
  • Big thanks to the Aussie contingent for making it fun in the post-conference evening dinners and drinks (see above).

Bad weather and a busy meeting ensured that I did not have too much time to explore SF, but have been there couple of times before and done most of the touristy stuff. Certainly this won’t be the last trip either.  In spite of the mainly gloomy weather this time, fondness for SF remains. Possibly not a place to live permanently (though given the quality of coffee on hand, I am sorely tempted), but great for brief visits or even spending a year or two like we did down under. San Francisco has that certain vibe, sorely lacking in San Diego (even in the Hillcrest/Gas Lamp-type happening areas).

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Note about Virgin America’s service trying not to sound like a paid advertisement: must be the funnest, most comfortable US-domestic airline around. Starting from their red-carpeted check-in area that often plays eclectic music, to the mood-lighted, almost Vegas-like cabin interior, leather seats (with enough space), power-port on every seat, personal entertainment unit with free and paid stuff, easy ordering of food/drink through the personal unit and most of all, the easy-going attitude of their staff; these guys have managed to make flying within US fun again (I know SouthWest does a few of these things, but I’ve had some bad experiences from them). The humorous way they handled the fog-related delay of the flight into SF (we were held up at SD itself) and also the manner in which the extremely tired staff at the SD airport went out to check if I had dropped my keys on the plane speaks volumes of their customer service. Wish they served a few more destinations.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

March 2, 2010 at 4:46 pm

San Fran Ahoy!

with 5 comments

Gearing up for almost a week at San Francisco to attend the Biophysical Society annual meeting.  Easily my favorite conference, which features not only cool science, but lots of fun people (and errr…..some irritatingly nerdy ones too) to meet-up with. Plus, looking forward to hanging out  with the good folks from down under. Good amount of drinking is in the forecast (given that it seems like weather will be kinda dreary).

Suggestions for watering holes and brekkie/coffee joints near the downtown area will be highly appreciated (I am scouring Yelp, but recos always help).

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

February 18, 2010 at 12:03 am

Posted in Science, Travel

Why I prefer my Martini stirred..

with 3 comments

…not shaken; because vigorous shaking introduces…err… stuff into the solution which could actually cure me. And I don’t want to be cured of my alcohol addiction.

Essentially, that is what this woo-ridden atricle by Dana Ullman in HuffPo explaining Homeopathy is trying to claim (via). It’s filled with gems like:

Further, the micro-bubbles and the nano-bubbles that are caused by the shaking may burst and thereby produce microenvironments of higher temperature and pressure.

Of course, what he is saying has to be true – after all he talks of nano-doses and nano-pharmacology and micro-environments (why didn’t he go to pico and femto ? Those sound even sexier and is actually more accurate to describe homeopathic dosage levels) and Quantum Medicine (I gotta take myself an online degree in that one)!

Sadly however, Ullman missed the clincher: James Bond drank his martini shaken and the shaking introduced super-bubbles into his drink and that’s how he managed to sleep with all the random women. As stated, I drink my martini stirred, and ergo no liaisons with alluring women.

After all, that makes as much sense as the rest of the so-called evidence.

Seriously  folks, there is very little in the way of scientific/medical evidence that homeopathy works. And before people who have been ‘cured’ by homeopathy start flaming me, let me state that I come from a family where ‘allopathy’ was always a last resort. And I too have been purportedly cured of a skin infection with homeopathy. However, at that time, my diet also changed and my mom started making me eat a lot of neem and turmeric etc. I’d think that these latter items which have actual ingredients and not some infinitesimally diluted and vigorously shaken nano/pico drop of water might have done the curing.

Unfortunately, most of the support for homeopathy seems to stem from such anecdotal evidence and not from rigorous double-blind studies that would convince skeptics (alas, some people – check the comments on HuffPo – have even come to regard double blind studies as a big-pharma conspiracy).

I have no problem if people want to indulge in homeopathy to waste time and money, but it becomes dangerous when people ignore good medical advice thinking they are getting a cure, or when homeopathy falsely advertises cure and/or prevention (e.g this earlier bad advice on H1N1 prevention by homeopathy which was being touted by a celebrity on Twitter).

So call it magic, call it a miracle, but explaining homeopathy with some technical mumbo-jumbo doesn’t make any sense.

(also read Dictatorji’s earlier post on homeopathy and astrology and the comments therein )

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 15, 2009 at 11:51 am

Shoddy journalism by Sagarika Ghose on Global Warming

with 29 comments

Last night on her Twitter account, Indian journalist Sagarika Ghose posted the following:

Is even the science of climate change dodgy? is there any evidence that CO2 is bad for us? who says the climate’s changing for the worse?

I am not sure where to begin parsing the statement, which displays either a stunning naivete or a sly dishonesty  calculated to get people charged up. Either way, it is quite appalling.

Actually, what is really appalling is the way she then goes about trying to prove her point.

Considering she works for CNN-IBN, which must to their disposal have at least one computer connected to this technology called the internet, where there exists these sites called Google and Bing that can be used to quickly search any topic. Not to mention that she must have at her disposal some sort of a research team, or the ability to get in touch with the relevant specialists for researching.

But what does she do when called for evidence of her statement? She retweets from some other guy offering up Bjorn Lomborg, the thoroughly discredited Danish academic as her source for anti-climate change (e.g see this, this or this).

If you are going to argue such a controversial issue, it pays not to be lazy – not to mention incredibly lame – enough as to cite Lomborg as your anti-climate change source! Heck, she could have even gone the Dubner-Levitt pathway given it has been on the news so much recently!  This is just stupendously shoddy journalism.

I have no problems with Ghose formulating a question for a proper debate – after all it is a supposedly free country with freedom of speech (though one of her contemporaries at least, has some sort of a problem with the definition of free speech, but we will let that go for now). However, it is inexcusable that she goes forth and makes statements that could be proven to be laughably false with the most perfunctory research.

Could it be that she is simply indulging in cheap sensationalism to improve ratings of her news channel? Quite possible given that she framed her question in the context of India’s role in reducing green house emissions, and whether

we [are] about to retard our industrial development because of america’s demands that we cut carbon emissions? (link)

Trying to whip up a bit of nationalist pride and sentiments against the US does no harm to ratings.  Statements such as, “Interesting point raised last night: our problem is poverty, not climate. lets first get rich, then we can go green.” are lame but sure to be a hit with the masses. Even then, it is  rather sad what she does to a complex discourse.

Consider that most die-hard skeptics now agree that climate change is real, and there is even a major consensus regarding the anthropogenic contribution to climate change. But how to solve the issue is however a highly charged debate involving as it does socio-economics and politics of a wide variety of country. For Ghose to reduce such complexity to levels stooped by the likes of Fox News and cronies is an incredible low.

(Thanks to Sakshi for many of the links)

update: Found this link with an incredible amount of resources to satisfy anyone’s climate change questions. I am not asking Ghose or anyone to absolutely agree with everything said here, but at least the person should argue on some intellectual basis.

——————————————–

1. On these lines, it is quite unfortunate that TV journalism in India has been reduced to screeching hosts and overexcited, juvenile on-site reporter.s Ghose is married to Rajdeep Sardesai, whose histrionics during the Mumbai bombings were rightly criticized. Much has also been said about the media’s culpability during the 26/11 siege of Mumbai.

2. On a lighter note, Ghose’s naive question “ is there any evidence that CO2 is bad for us?” reminds me of Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachman trying to argue that global warming is of no concern because carbon-dioxide is natural and causes no harm!!

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 21, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Bad advices – celebrity edition….

with 4 comments

As if the hysteria over the H1N1 swine-flu is not enough, now we have a celebrity providing bad advice on preventing the flu.  Via Twitter no less.

Actress Gul Panag wrote today:

There’s a “preventive” homeopathic medicine for Swine flue (sic) – INFLUENZUM,available at all homeopathic chemists.Prevention is better than cure (link)

No shit ! And so when do I get to give advice on how the director should frame her next shot. Because, you know – I have dabbled in amateur theater. (Btw, the medicine is not called INFLUENZUM – it is influenzinum)

Although Gul hasn’t gone off on the deep end like her American counterparts, Jenny McCarthy or Jim Carrey and their anti-vaccination idiocy, it is still bad advice.

To set the records straight, a homeopathic treatment is no prevention against the flu.  Notwithstanding the tall claims on websites such as this  which state:

Influenzinum is made each year from the influenza vaccination shot. Here’s how it is made, and how we have made it for years. It is in the HPUS (Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States).We take the shot itself and place it in 9 parts water and succuss (25 thumps)- the result is 1x – We then take that 1x, put in 9 parts alcohol and succuss it again and make a 2x (& a 1c). The 3x or 2c are then made separately – 1:9 (x) or 1:99 (c).We continue in this manner up to 30x and 30c (by hand and from the 30c on to the 200c using the Helios potentizing machine). (Joe Lillard,WHP)

Apart from the alcohol, I am not sure there is much palliative in this prescription. By the time, the dilution takes place, you will be lucky to catch any strain of the original virus to boost your immunity. Prevention of flu, as it were, can be through a combination of  keeping  your hands and face clean,  and avoiding infected people. The latter, even in a low density populations is difficult without shutting yourself completely from the world. Even taking the flu vaccine every year is no guarantee against the infection during the season since new viral strains can easily appear. For the H1N1 particularly, even though a vaccine has been developed, not much is yet known about its efficacy.  Hence the so-called Influenzium treatment – even if effective against other flu – would be useless for H1N1.

Overall, the best option is to remain safe and pretty much hope for the best. And yeah – get the shot if available. There aren’t any easy alternatives.

Unfortunately, I suppose this kind of quackery will be very popular in India – especially where you have countless millions brainwashed by one Baba Ramdev, who among other things, proposes cure for homosexuality through yogas. (And yes, according to him, swine-flu can be prevented through yogas too.)

The scary part is that people may take such advice to heed and have an elevated sense of safety. Does not help the individual or the community.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

August 20, 2009 at 1:11 am

Posted in India, Rants, Science

Tagged with , ,

Boston ahoy.

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Off to my favorite scientific conference. I wish the organizers had chosen a warmer clime, but then hopefully the science within the heated indoors will more than make up for it. So here is looking forward to meeting old friends, making new ones, networking, and of course, some awesome science.

After the conference,  a bit of nothing to do (unless someone wants to offer me a job interview :P ) and then San Francisco for a couple of days.

Any lurkers from Boston/Bay Area, give a toot. Beer shall be consumed in good company then.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

February 25, 2009 at 9:20 am

Posted in Personal, Science, Travel

Lou Dobbs’ truthism on science

with 11 comments

Lou Dobbs is a TV and radio hack on the lines of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage who comes on CNN every evening to supposedly champion the cause of the American middle-class against the excesses of capitalism. In reality, he shrills about immigrants and BPOs taking American jobs with a paranoia that borders on xenophobia.  More often than not while furthering his alarmist agenda, he does not shy away from deliberate dishonesty e.g. often obfuscating facts vis-a-vis legal and illegal immigration issues.

Having taken on technology companies, H1B workers, Mexicans etc. for the longest time, he recently turned his attack on US science, with the usual malicious blend of partial facts and truthisms:

Quite a bad case of ascribing causation based on evidence that does not exist. Generally, I would not bother myself with this level of idiocy. The segment would have been conveniently ignored but for the fact it was highlighted by a science blog, Biocurious, with the following commentary from the blogger:

I think the process Dobbs describes is basically correct. If Americans cut off the supply of foreign scientists by making it even harder to get visas, postdoc salaries would increase because of the sudden drop in available labour,…..

Excuse me ?!! I can understand someone like Dobbs pandering to his constituency to drive his ratings, but for a graduate student in one of the premier universities in the US to be taken in by this  unbalanced rhetoric is quite perplexing  – not to mention, a bit disturbing. A few counterarguments are thus necessary.

Firstly, this foreigner argument would imply that post-doc/scientist salaries were high before the so-called influx of foreign scientists. But that is obviously not true. Post-doc, and even professorial salaries in science have been historically low (even globally) compared to other professions.  I remember my PhD supervisor who was a post-doc in the 70s talking about the extremely low (inflation adjusted) salaries way back then, when very few foreign post-docs came to the US. In fact, ever since 98/99, when Congress changed rules placing universities and non-profit organizations outside the H1B quota, thereby providing these institutions with ‘unrestricted access’ to  foreigners,  NIH-recommended salary scales have actually gone up.

Secondly, it is not as if foreign scientists are coming to work in the US for cheaper salaries,  they get paid the same as any US-based PhD. In fact, it is a bit more costly for a professor to hire an foreign post-doc, considering that in most cases international air-fares have to provided as part of the relocation package, visa paperworks need to be submitted – and paid for (contrary to what Dobbs is saying, obtaining a US work visa is still not a trivial issue).  Thus it also takes more time for a foreign post-doc to start their work after receiving an employment offer, meaning loss of research time for the professor. Additionally, an investigator is taking a bit of a risk in investing on an international person without the benefit on a in-person interview. The fact that foreign post-docs  get hired in spite of all these hassles would indicate that there aren’t enough qualified candidates in the US (and even as such, I not believe that scientific jobs or scientific investigation is a finite quantity ).

[We could argue about the causes for and the unsustainable nature of the currently skewed ration of  post-doctoral positions and academic jobs available to them, not just in the US but in countries like the UK and Australia as well. But that is not related to foreign scientists or salaries, and is a separate and more serious issue]

Thirdly, anyone related to academic sciences should know that the post-doctoral position is not one that offers  a choice. Any academic position (even teaching jobs in liberal arts colleges) now require a significant post-doctoral experience. In such a scenario, salaries can be kept low artificially whether or not there is a glut of labor in the market.

Apart from these primary arguments, here are some more points – not all directly related to the salary issue, but obviously neglected by Dobbs:

1. A small nitpick, but the story mentions salaries as low as $35K; AFAIK NIH minimum standards are $36-38K for first year post-docs plus health insurance in most cases.

Also, a number of grants funded by NIH, NSF and federal agencies such as National Institute of Standards and Technology, Office of Naval Research etc offer post-doc fellowships at a much higher rate, to the tunesof $ 50-70K (though reserved mostly for US citizens).

2.  Not all post-doc positions can be held by foreigners, certain training salaries even stipulate that only US-citizen/permanent residents can hold the job. Moreover, international post-docs are not allowed to work  at certain places like the NIH campuses in Bethesda and Frederick (possibly at the one in North Carolina as well) under the H1B worker’s visa (sometimes they can work, but only under the much more restrictive J-1 exchange visa). Finally, NIH’s prestigious post-doctoral fellowships can be obtained only by US citizens/PRs.

It would appear therefore that US nationals and permanent residents are well protected in terms of obtaining post-doctoral jobs/fellowships, sometimes at salaries higher than the market rate.

3. It should be noted that those post-docs working in universities on quota-exempt H1B visa cannot move to the industry or to for-profit organizations without returning to the H1B ‘quota pool’. For the last few years this industry quota has been oversubscribed making it highly difficult for international post-docs to land jobs outside academia.

This means a relative lack of competition for US nationals in the industrial sector, which certainly does not pay badly.

4. As pointed out in the comments section of the Biocurious blog-post, a percentage of the foreign post-docs in the US come from Europe or Australia, where they often bring funding from their own countries.

5. No mention is made of the percentage of the foreign post-docs who received their PhD in the US. It would be self-defeating for US to allow scientists trained by them to take their expertise elsewhere.

From these points, it should be obvious that the influx of international scientists cannot be the major reason for scientist salaries to be low. Science policies, lack of funding, failure to groom scientists at an early age, fewer career prospects and a host of other factors have contributed to the situation.

On the other hand, the question of low salary, or to be more exact, the issue of post-doc periods getting longer without proper career prospects is indeed a major one. The likes of Dobbs are guilty of  trivializing  an important concern by using the red herring of foreign labor.

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While on this topic, I am not even bringing up the point of how in the present climate of globalization it is fool-hardy to be restrictive on  themovement of human capital. Or, the more obvious point of how US science could hardly have scaled the heights it is at today with tough restrictions to entry of foreigners. Imagine Einstein and Bohr prevented from entering the US, and you can just as well imagine the Manhattan project being conducted in Germany! Not to mention the slew of Nobel prize winners who were born abroad but did their path breaking science in the US.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 26, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Question to all the US residents……

with 2 comments

Has Obama solved the financial crisis, prevented torture, made global warming go away,  stopped war etc (oh, and found me a nice, cushy job) !? I mean he has had 24 hours to work on these stuff, come on !

On a serious note: I am quite happy that the US finally has a president who can more than put together two consecutive coherent sentences – in fact, one who is truly a great orator. I am even happier as a scientist that the new President does not share his predecessor’s disdain for intellectualism, and in fact has gone out of his way to court scientists in his administration. And I do realize it is quite an historic occasion for the US to be electing an African-American president, barely a few decades removed from an era when in some parts of the country they were not even allowed to ride in the  same portion of the bus.

However, what does  irk me is the group of Twitterers, bloggers and Facebook-ers who seem to view the inauguration of Obama as the 44th US president as the coming of some sort of a Messiah. The manner of going into raptures over every bit of  utterings/actions of the new President and the examples of  near-worshipping devotion I have noted on the internet are simply beyond satrical proportions. And the sad thing is that these people are setting themselves up for a big disappointment, because whatever he is, Obama apppears to me firstly as a very pragmatic politician.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 22, 2009 at 12:24 am

Posted in Politics, Rants, Science

Steven Chu to be Energy Sec’y

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According to various media outlets,  Barack Obama is expected to tap Nobel-laureate physicist, Stanford faculty, and current  director of Lawrence Berkeley LaboratorySteven Chu as his Energy Secretary.

Considering the importance of energy policy – not just for US, but the world – in the coming years, this is a great decision by Obama. Not just because it is a welcome departure from the anti-intellectual stance of the current administration, but also Chu is really serious about global warming.

On a personal level, there are some trivially interesting connections: Chu is an alumni from my graduate school and I have heard him present a really entertaining talk, plus I have been involved in a bit of research emanating (though much much downstream) from his pioneering work on single molecule fluorescence imaging.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 11, 2008 at 7:53 am

Obama and Science

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The election of Barak Obama last night has rightly brought about a whole lot of cheers from the scientific community. I suspect large majority of scientist supported Obama’s candidacy and he was even endorsed by more than seventy Nobel laureates, including this year’s winner in Chemistry. Given the embarrassingly idiotic anti-science stance of his opponent, this was no surprise.

The next question is obviously, how will an Obama administration actually help science ? Noted science writer and blogger Chris Mooney addresses the question in details.

Personally, I am quite pragmatic about any real changes in scientific policy that will directly affect me. Given the budget deficits and the grim economic scenario, I am not expecting a NIH budget-doubling any time soon.

However, what I do find comforting (and I am pretty much echoing most scientists here) is that come January 20th next year, USA will be lead by a person, who is clearly well-educated, has an understanding and respect for science  – shown by his articulate response to SciDebate08 questions – and does not indulge in the anti-intellectual rhetoric of the current administration.

It is also interesting to note that apparently this is the first time in history that both the president and vice-presidents along with their spouses have some connection with higher education.

Taken together, the Obamas and the Bidens have amassed decades of experience at colleges and universities. Mr. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 until 2004, when he took office in the U.S. Senate. His wife, Michelle, has worked in the administration at the same university and is on leave from her job as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

The Bidens also have spent considerable time in academe. For the past 17 years, Mr. Biden has taught as an adjunct professor at the Widener University School of Law. His wife, Jill, is an English instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College’s Stanton-Wilmington campus. (link)

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

November 5, 2008 at 9:34 pm

Posted in Politics, Science

Tagged with , ,

Nobel for Fluorescent Proteins

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I don’t know how I managed to miss this significant bit of news till now (I can only blame the vagaries of traveling, even though I was connected most of the time): the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for work on Green Fluorescent Proteins,and is shared by Osamu Shimomura, who originally isolated the protein from jellyfish, Martin Chalfie, who first expressed the protein in a bacteria, and Roger Tsien, who figured out a bit about how these proteins work and then greatly expanded the color palette of these proteins (in addition to his many other achievements in the field of molecular bio-sensors and cell biology).

The ‘GFP Nobel’ has been in the rumor mills for a few years now, and I believe it is fully deserved.  However, te cloud in the silver lining is the rather unfortunate story of Doug Prasher, who originally cloned the protein (ie was able to figure out the genetic code for the protein) but was unable to make glowing proteins in a recombinant system. He was the one who had provided the GFP DNA to both Chalfie and Tsien, because his grant at Woods Hole Institute had run out! What’s he doing now: driving a shuttle-bus for a car dealership in Huntsville, Alabama ! A hard lesson for all those of you in science right now.

Having worked with fluorescent proteins quite a bit, there is a sense of personal attachment to this year’s prize. Do check out an blog I had written about these light-emitting proteins last year. Here is an excerpt:

Among such tools, the discovery and use of fluorescent (light emitting) proteins, has proved to be a major boon for scientists investigating activities of genes and proteins inside cells. Fluorescence is an optical phenomenon, where a molecule absorbs photons of a particular color and thereafter emits photons of a different color – with the emitted color always red-shifted. While this phenomenon had been observed in living organisms, the molecules involved in the luminescence were unknown till the 1960s. In ‘62, Osamu Shimomura, a Princeton scientist investigating the phenomenon of bioluminescence, isolated a light-emitting protein from the jellyfish, Aequorea victoria, in the Padget Sound area of Washington state. This protein, named aequorin1, produced blue light – but only in presence of calcium. However, as a footnote in the publication of this discovery, Shimomura and co-worker mentioned “….a protein giving solutions that look slightly greenish in sunlight through only yellowish under tungsten lights, and exhibiting a very bright, greenish fluorescence in the ultraviolet of a Mineralite, has also been isolated…”. It was soon found that this ‘other protein’ was involved in absorbing the blue light from Aequerin and emitting the green light observed in the jellyfish. It was named appropriately, even if perhaps a little unimaginatively, the green fluorescent protein (GFP).

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 13, 2008 at 8:46 pm

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