Colliding Worlds—A Rare Visit to the CERN Collider Gives a Biologist New Hope

LHC StefNearly 170 meters beneath CERN, ASCB Executive
Director Stefano Bertuzzi gets a rare look at the Large
Hadron Collider. Here he stands in front of the detector.
Photo Credit: ASCB
Last week, I was invited to speak about research and innovation at an Aspen Institute meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, held at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, better known to the rest of the world by its acronym, CERN. Like all Aspen Institute meetings, this one flew at a high level, and, needless to say, it was an exhilarating experience.

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Watching Train Wrecks

trainIt’s full steam ahead for disaster or will the
brakes stop the runaway fiscal crisis train in time?
Photo by John Fleischman
Along with the future of U.S. research science, the train wreck metaphor has suffered terribly in recent days. Politicians and pundits had already twisted the metaphor during the federal government shutdown into a cliché about bad stuff happening that's someone else's fault. Now with the edge of the fiscal cliff in clear sight, the expression will likely be crushed in the wreckage.

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UPDATED-NIH Furloughs to Widen—From Slowdown to Shutdown, U.S. Science Takes a Hit

Drosophila melanogasterThe USDA is closed and no U.S. orders for international fruit
flies can be processed until the government is back in business.
Photo Credit: André KarwathU
UPDATED—The "Activation Energy" blog has learned that NIH will soon be forced to furlough even more Bethesda employees. SEE BELOW

When I saw the federal government shutdown heading inexorably toward us three weeks ago, I discussed with Kevin Wilson, the ASCB Public Policy Director, the idea of organizing a press conference to protest the further damage that a government shutdown would inflict on science. All along, I was hoping we would not have to do this and that reason will somehow prevail in Congress. Then I thought, "Reason? Congress?" We made a reservation for a meeting room at the prestigious National Press Club in Washington, DC, where news happens.

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The Scholarly Paper That No One Will Want to Read Is Being Written in Congress

quality of lifeSpelling It Out: Spending on basic research has increased
our longevity and the quality of that longer life.
Photo Credit: John Fleischman
This week, a paper in the American Journal of Public Health, a well-respected scholarly publication in the field, caught my attention.1 The paper reported how health economists, using well-validated instruments, examined the state of population health in the United States and how population health changed from 1987 to 2008. They took into consideration not just mortality and morbidity, but also quality of life, which is an essential measure of health in developed countries like ours.

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Showing the Faces of Science

weareresearchIn 2011, the Nobel Foundation awarded its prize of prizes to cell biologist, immunologist, and longtime ASCB member Ralph Steinman. When the foundation tried calling to deliver the good news, no one picked up the phone. Dr. Steinman had died three days before. A tireless researcher who identified and named dendritic cells, Steinman championed an unpopular theory about the immune system that turned out to be right. His death just days before this worldwide public recognition was unbelievably sad and unfortunate. But when I read of it, an idea came to me immediately of how a tragic situation like this could be turned into something fitting and something powerful.

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Why Congress Should Be Worried About the Endoplasmic Reticulum

Morphogenesis in biology always fascinated me. As a developmental neurobiologist at the bench, I studied how homeobox genes patterned the neural epithelium, the retina in particular, to understand the events that turn a flat sheet of epithelium into a three-dimensional hemisphere, the optic cup. Since I came of age scientifically during the “genetic revolution” era, I was mesmerized by the ability of that technology to alter the mouse genome and allow me to watch powerful genes operating in vivo. However, I also had at the back of my mind an idea for a different if complementary approach to genetics. I envisioned a new kind of theoretical modeling that could take into account the physical forces acting on single cells while shaping a developing tissue. In particular, when imagining the retina’s formation, I always thought of the role of mechanical forces on cells, bending the epithelium sheet into an optic cup, and how this must be achieved with the lowest possible energy consumption.

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The Perils of Reviewing Peer Review

As a recovering federal employee, I recognize that one of the biggest challenges the government faces in funding science is that of being truly Darwinian in a rapidly evolving scientific environment. Engineering natural selection doesn’t come easily to government funding agencies, which are often playing with one hand behind the back.

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