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Lou Dobbs’ truthism on science

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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……

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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

Simple things that make your day….

with 5 comments

It happens ever so rarely: an otherwise trifling experience early – something seen, heard or read – makes the entire day.

Making my day is a reminder of this Richard Feynman quote (via Coturnix):

“Science is a lot like sex. Sometimes something useful comes of it, but that’s not the reason we’re doing it.”

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 31, 2007 at 7:10 pm

Posted in Personal, Science

Nobel Prize in Medicine, Physiology….

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…..is awarded for discovery of gene-knockout technologies in mice. Recipients are Drs Mario R. Capecchi (University of Utah), Martin J. Evans (Cardiff University ) and Oliver Smithies (UNC – my former stomping ground!).

This is a discovery that would have won the award sooner or later. Genetically modified mice are now an indispensable part of research into gene function and regulation (more details on the methods and the research here). What is interesting that gene regulation techniques have won the prize on two consecutive years and the gene knockout, an older discovery, won after RNA interference.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 8, 2007 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Science

Tagged with ,

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