Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Addressing the Alarming Rise in Zombie and Mermaid Sightings (actually, citings)

Drawing by Sean Adams, 
A few weeks ago, the Center for Disease Control was forced to issue a statement that there is no zombie virus. While this might seem an absurd thing for a government agency to say, the whole story is somewhat more convoluted. As I learned from a talk given by science writer Carl Zimmer and posted online, the CDC had posted a story on its website with instructions to prepare people for the zombie apocalypse. The intention was to create greater awareness of disaster preparedness issues so that, by thinking about zombies, people would give some thought to earthquake, hurricane, and disease outbreak-type situations. In other words, a PR stunt. The strategy backfired when rumors started on the web about a real zombie apocalypse, and went viral. At that point, the CDC was tied up in the matter and forced to sound ridiculous.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Don't say the "P" word

By now, nearly everyone who is part of the biomedical workforce has read about the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group's report and its recommendations. The leader of the working group is Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University and my fellow alum, molecular biologist, and Canadian. In the past few years, she has done more than perhaps any other person to improve the plight of trainee scientists.

The report's recommendations are covered in the linked article, so I won't rehash them here. They include: increased postdoc pay and benefits, a reduced biomedical workforce, more graduate students supported by training grants, and education of graduate students and postdocs about alternative careers. 

I want to instead focus on the quotes attributed to Bob Horvitz, Nobel laureate and MIT geneticist. He opposes the recommendations of the report and gives his reasons. Here are two of them from the article:
 "One wants to be sure that the principal investigators, who are supposed to be doing the research, continue to have enough flexibility to be able to support the research they want to do," he said. Taking away that flexibility, he argued, could reduce research productivity.
Followed later by:
But ACD member Horvitz was skeptical. The money to raise postdoc salaries "has to come from somewhere,” he said, and given NIH's current budget woes, it might be impractical to raise postdoc pay. If PIs were forced to make do with fewer (but better paid) postdocs, he argued, lab productivity would probably decline.