Who cares about science?

It’s easy to say something like “you can’t put a dollar amount on the value of science” except you can, quite easily. Governments do it all the time! So how much does the US government value science? Look above and you can easily see that, adjusting for inflation, the US government cares less about science than at any time in the last twenty years. But over those twenty years, the population has grown by 20%.

Another way we could ask how much the US government values science is to look at how hard it is for a scientist to even be funded. If we look at how hard it is for a scientist to get funded to do research, you can see how devastating the cuts in funding are: the success rate has gone from 30.5% to 18.3% over twenty years. And that’s on average. How hard is it for young scientists?

The funding rate for an under-36 scientist is 3%. 3%!

I keep getting told to not worry, science is a bipartisan issue. No one wants to implement Donald Trumps’ total devastation of the science budget. But if the support is so bipartisan, why do I not feel comforted? Why has investment in science decreased no matter who has been in power? Remember these numbers when the budget is passed on Friday; that is how much the government supports you.

And all that is without getting into the even more direct attacks on science that Trump and people like the chairman of the science committee, Lamar Smith.

Donald Trump is attacking the very foundations of science (cross-posted from Medium)

The beautiful thing about science is that it works. It doesn’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican; an atheist, Christian or Muslim; rich or poor. It works. It has consistently provided the tools necessary to improve everyone’s lives. Whether that is to cure disease, to produce the computer or phone you are reading this on, or to heat your home, science works. There have always been two key to foundations that science is built on: scientific data and people. Donald Trump is attacking both of these.

Although we are lumped into categories — biologist, physicist, ecologist — there are very few real silos between fields. Science is a chaotic, swirling mess of ideas that get passed around as we attempt to explain the world. I am a neuroscientist. But, more importantly, I am a scientist. In my field, some of the most influential tools have come from studying how jellyfish glow in the dark and how bacteria survive in salty environments. We take ideas about how magnets align with each other and use them to explain how masses of brain cells are able to work together to perceive the world. I read papers from physicists, from computer scientists, from ecologists and apply this directly to problems of how brains are able to make decisions and communicate with each other.

At the heart of all this is data. Data is not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. Data is. When scientists hear that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is stricken from communicating, that data and studies must be approved by political appointees — no, quick, walk that back, data on the EPA website is being reviewed by political appointees — we don’t hear a focused attack on climate change. We hear an attack on the fundamental basis of science. The EPA does not simply research climate change, but funds research on health, on ecosystems, on chemistry, and more. When I scroll through the list of research I see many studies that could help neuroscience and medicine. But how would I know what to trust, what data has been allowed and what has not? An attack on the EPA’s ability to produce data is an attack on all of science.

The more insidious attack on science is on its people. Trump recently announced that visas from certain countries would not be renewable. One of these countries is Iran, one of the largest producers of scientific minds in the world. And they come to the USA! And want to live here and contribute to the scientific enterprise. Because we really do recruit the best minds, and they get here and they want to stay.

There is an important story as to how America became the scientific powerhouse that it is, especially in Physics. Prior to World War 2, the language of science was a mix of French, German and English. But as it became clear that more and more people were unacceptable in Europe, some of the greatest physicists in the world moved to America. Einstein, Bohr, Fermi and Pauli. And after the war, more and more scientists poured into America: Wernher von Braun led the team that launched America’s first satellite and America’s moon landings. And so, because America took in the best scientists in the world, America became the biggest and best producer of science in the world. And it continues that dominance because this is where the best research is done and it is where people want to be.

But these days other countries do great science, too. What happens to the Iranians who want to come to the US to do a PhD? They can’t anymore. What happens to the Iranians already in the US who wanted to stay here and build their lives here? They left Iran for a reason. But do they want to stay in America anymore? I cannot count the number of times I have already heard from my Iranian friends, “I should have taken the job in Europe.” And it is not just them. Everyone who has a visa is worried about the new fickleness of the system. Who knows who is next?

One thing is clear: Donald Trump is attacking American science. Donald Trump is attacking the very foundations that science in this country is built on. He is not attacking faceless enemies, he is attacking our very real friends and colleagues. These attacks are so bad that even the most introverted scientists are gearing up to march. This is not about Republicans or Democrats. This is about Donald Trump’s war on science.

(Cross-posted from Medium)

tl;dr bullet points:

1. There are two key foundations that science is built on: scientific data and people. Donald Trump is attacking both of these

2. Science is about data. Data is not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative.

3. The attack on the EPA is an attack on all science. Data collected in every field is used by a huge number of OTHER fields

4. The EPA does not simply fund climate change, but also funds research on health, on ecosystems, on chemistry, and more

5. The more insidious attack on science is on its people

6. Remember that the reason America is a scientific powerhouse is because all the best researchers in the world wanted to come here during and after WW2

7. Number of times I have already heard great Iranian scientists in the US say “I should have gone to Europe” is saddening

8. The halting of all visas to Iran etc sends a message to ALL foreign scientists who might otherwise come here

9. This is great for Europe and China, terrible for USA

10. Donald Trump is not attacking faceless enemies, he is attacking our friends and colleagues

11. As both an American and a scientist, I am so, so angry at what he is doing: attacking the very foundations of science in this country

12. You know things are bad when even the most introverted scientists want to march! When was the last time THAT happened?

NeuroRumblr, year three

Another year, another search for faculty jobs. If you are searching for jobs, head over to the NeuroRumblr for crowd-sourced guide to neuroscience faculty positions. Don’t just take my word for it! It has been called “the only reasonable way to cut through the haphazard morass of faculty job postings“. So there you go.

Some of the improvements to this iteration:

  • The site itself is somewhat cleaner and slightly-less-ugly
  • After several requests, I have added postdoc openings
  • There is more academic advice
  • The associated twitter account now has a twitterbot which will provide updates and reminders. So follow @neurorumblr if you want the latest news!
  • Important: The List of postdocs who are looking for jobs is being restarted for the new year in order to clean out the old list. The old list still exists! But re-enter your information for the new year. I have already had new requests from search committees for access to The List, so people are looking at it!
  • Not an improvement, but I would love to make this more of a web app that allows you to save things etc while still being as easy-to-use as a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to do this but if you do, or know someone who does, let me know!

I have no idea who got jobs and who didn’t; which spots were filled and which weren’t. But for some stats (last year)… there were ~95 positions in 2014-2015 and ~103 positions in 2015-2016. If we look at the word counts for job types we see:neurorumblr2015-2016

One thing to note is the crazy rise in ‘behavior’ jobs and the total disappearance of ‘computational’ jobs.

Of the people who put themselves on The List, ~38% were female and ~10% considered themselves an underrepresented minority or ‘diverse’ in some way.

And because everyone loves word clouds:


Recent news in journals

Have you missed the recent hubub about Frontiers? Neuroconscience has this to say:

Lately it seems like the rising tide is going against Frontiers. Originally hailed as a revolutionary open-access publishing model, the publishing group has been subject to intense criticism in recent years. Recent issues include being placed on Beall’s controversial ‘predatory publisher list‘, multiple high profile disputes at the editorial level, and controversy over HIV and vaccine denialist articles published in the journal seemingly without peer review. As a proud author of two Frontiers articles and former frequent reviewer, these issues compounded with a general poor perception of the journal recently lead me to stop all publication activities at Frontiers outlets…

And this from the comments:

My husband, who is in math, had an entirely different experience. He was asked to be an *editor* in a field where he has just one paper. He explained that it’s not really his field – so far so good. The response of Frontiers? Won’t you please please still consider being an editor? This is just bad. If he had accepted (and people do accept all sorts of things for career advancement), he wouldn’t have been in a position to adequately judge the quality of the incoming papers or reviews.

In broader journal news, there is a blog post up at Frontiers about impact factor with this cool chart:


Obviously the journals do not get the same set of submissions so in a sense this has severe selection bias.

Bjorn Brembs has been on a roll about journals and brought up something that I had no idea about: journals can, to a certain extent, negotiate their impact factor!

One of the first accounts to show how a single journal accomplished this feat were Baylis et al. in 1999 with their example of FASEB journal managing to convince the ISI to remove their conference abstracts from the denominator, leading to a jump in its impact factor from 0.24 in 1988 to 18.3 in 1989. Another well-documented case is that of Current Biology whose impact factor increased by 40% after acquisition by Elsevier in 2001. To my knowledge the first and so far only openly disclosed case of such negotiations was PLoS Medicine’s editorial about their negotiations with Thomson Reuters in 2006, where the negotiation range spanned 2-11 (they settled for 8.4). Obviously, such direct evidence of negotiations is exceedingly rare and usually publishers are quick to point out that they never would be ‘negotiating’ with Thomson Reuters, they would merely ask them to ‘correct’ or ‘adjust’ the impact factors of their journals to make them more accurate. Given that already Moed and van Leeuwen found that most such corrections seemed to increase the impact factor, it appears that these corrections only take place if a publisher considers their IF too low and only very rarely indeed if the IF may appear too high (and who would blame them?).