Friday, 22 August 2014 11:24

Science, a Cause Worth Fightin’ for

Written by  Pinar Gurel
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we are researchThe Roelink Lab at UC Berkeley put a face on
science in last year's #WeAreResearch campaign.
Although there may be quite a lot of science in the news lately (the Ebola scare, climate change, 2013 Merriam-Webster's "word of the year"), the sad truth is that the future for science research in the United States is bleak. For those of us in our PhDs or postdocs, this probably doesn't come as a surprise. You may have read the viral article, Why You Don't Actually 'f*@king love science' or have seen this depressing infographic. The research enterprise in the USA has been on the downward trajectory, losing critical funding (the NIH has lost about 25% of its "purchasing power" in the past 10 years). And what that means is that there is little future for a career in science, ESPECIALLY for our generation of scientists, the 20-30 somethings.

A recent PNAS article by influential ASCB members, "Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws," discusses the unsustainability of the American biomedical research enterprise. The authors note that our research programs cannot simply continue to expand, and one suggestion to ameliorate this situation is to limit the number of graduate students entering the field. Essentially, since the fountain (of money) is drying up, have fewer people drink from it. Other suggestions include stabilizing our funding situation with a longer-term funding allotment and limiting postdoc durations, while increasing postdoc salaries.

While these recommendations are reasonable and promising, following through will require unity from the biomedical workforce and will take several years. While decreasing the number of grad students seems to be a good long-term plan, what about those already in graduate school or postdoc positions? Are we just unluckily at the wrong place at the wrong time, hurt by a failing system put into place by our forefathers?

I suggest an additional recommendation to alleviate the ailments of a declining biomedical research system: advocacy. Not just advocacy from the top scientists in our field, but advocacy from us—current graduate students and postdocs, the generation that is the hardest hit by the current funding crisis. We are in quite a difficult situation, and thus it is our duty to do the most to advocate for our cause. We need funding now! I certainly don't have all the answers... but here are a couple suggestions of where we might begin:

1. First of all, communicate. Tell people about your research, what you do, and its importance. Tell your family, your neighbor, your bffs, the guy you sit next to on the airplane, the bartender at happy hour (well... depending on how many drinks you've had). And be mindful of your audience. Example: when I tell people I work on the actin filament severing mechanism of the formin INF2, their eyes glaze over... when I tell them I work on proteins involved in a kidney disease, they start asking questions and get interested. This is a small step, but important. The more people know and understand science, the more they will be on board with it, the more they'll tell others, and the more they'll make political decisions in your favor.

2. Contact your members of Congress and advocate for science funding and research. An email, a letter, or a phone call will only take a couple minutes of your time, and goes a long way. Your members of Congress are representing YOU, so as a constituent, it's up to you to fight for the issues that matter most to you. It's easy to get started, and ASCB can help. Get more info on how to become an advocate and contact your members of Congress here.

3. Urge other scientists to advocate for science funding as well—especially your peers! Urge your institution or university to support you as well. The more voices that are heard, the better.

4. Advocate on social media, take a selfie, write a blog, post on facebook. We are the Internet generation, and you betcha we are good at reaching out to the masses. Current social media trends have done a lot to raise awareness and boost funding for biomedical research (ALS ice bucket challenge, No Make Up selfie for breast cancer awareness, #WeAreResearch campaign) and I can guarantee this is a step in the right direction. Keep this up!

5. Have other better ideas? Let people know, speak out!

As graduate students or postdocs, we can't just hide behind the comfort of our pipettes and microscopes. Solid research and a few good publications aren't enough to guarantee a decent faculty position, thanks in large part to the current funding climate. And unfortunately, this trend will affect our generation the most. So I encourage all of you to advocate for our cause, and reach out to family, friends, colleagues, and policymakers. Working together, we can make a difference.