In 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.
My mind raced ahead to the December ceremony when the award would be solemnly presented by the King of Sweden. My sympathies and my respect went out to the Steinman family but I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if this Nobel prize could be presented on his behalf to a stage filled by Ralph Steinman’s mentees, the scientists who decade after decade had trained in his lab? And behind them would be the hundreds of scientists that Steinman’s mentees had trained.
The Nobel Prize is one moment in the year when the broadest possible audience throughout the world is exposed to science. As we, scientists, know all too well, most people have no idea of what we do in the lab, a workplace that is perhaps one of the least understood “business environments” on earth. Americans know more about pawn shops and beauty pageants than they do about scientific laboratories. Often, the image that people have is a solitary genius with white disheveled hair, working in ill-tempered solitude, completely detached from society. For a moment, I imagined a stage filled with the generations of researchers who sprang from the Steinman laboratory and how that could shatter this warped image of how scientists really live and work.
The stage effect is nowhere as grand, but ASCB’s We Are Research campaign has something of the same spirit. The Society’s Public Policy Committee under the leadership of Doug Koshland and our policy wonks Kevin Wilson and Stella Salzer have just launched the 2013 campaign to put a new face on science, its real face, that is, the faces of ASCB members in laboratories across the U.S. We need to show the public that science is the life work of a vibrant community of mostly young, talented people who are driven by curiosity, living at the exhilarating interface between what is known and what is still a mystery.
The real face of science is that of people, of many people. Because the nature of scientific discoveries is mostly incremental, one big discovery comes at the tail of dozens of smaller but critical discoveries. It would be difficult to capture all the faces associated with any transformative research outcome, but that is exactly what We Are Research tries to do. We are collecting the many, many faces of science in this country.
Showing our faces to the world is more than vanity. It is essential. We need to put our collective face before our elected officials in Congress, our state capitols, and at city hall. We need to stand before our neighbors and show them that research comes from people who live just down the block. Forget the Gothic castle and the lighting bolts. New science comes from labs in ordinary looking buildings. Once a year, a handful of distinguished scientists leave those labs for a cool trip to Stockholm but they go on behalf of all of us who labor at the bench, the computer, and the instrument facility. That’s where science lives, day-in day-out.
We are research and we need to support the young people who struggle to learn the craft of science or we shoot ourselves in the foot. We need to make policy makers see that our young investigators are vulnerable and that if we turn them away now, they won’t come back. There will be no “next” generation in our labs to make the innovations necessary for our future health and our future economy. If we drive away this generation of young scientists, our country will awake one day to find the innovation machine that has driven America for a century has stalled. It will not be so easy to turn it back on.
We are research but NIH funding has already stalled. NIH funding is the primary driver of biomedical research in the U.S. and yet increases in the NIH budget have been held below the rate of inflation since 2004. We have been falling behind inflation for nine years!!! Because of this, success rates of NIH applications have plummeted on average by seven percent. To add insult to injury, we have more or less cancelled the research year of 2013 by turning loose the mindless sequestration shredder, further reducing the NIH budget by 5.5%. I can keep going with depressing statistics. But I think you have the message. We are research but we need to show ourselves and our leaders how dangerous it is to pretend that science will grow without scientists.
We cannot invite you onto the Nobel ceremony stage this year but we can invite you onto the online stage at the We Are Research website. Send us your faces. Send us a picture of all the people in your lab. We are research. We are people. We are scientists. Show the world.