Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why Not Ask 'Why' For the Future of STEM Education?

“Why don’t birds get frostbite on their feet and legs during the winter?” This was a question posed by panelist Dr. Frank Keil during a lively discussion on the future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) education.  “I didn’t know and I was curious, so I looked it up,” the Yale Psychology and Linguistics professor continued. At the heart of his seemingly innocuous query was how often adults in our society asked “why?” questions.  It prompted me to consider that nearly every one of my own education and career choices were driven by questions of “why?” and “how?” such as:  Why did I have so many colds as a kid? How do infectious bugs get into my body? How does my body get rid of these infectious bugs? These are the questions typical of both an inquisitive child and a trained scientist, but why not the general public?  Panelist Richard Therrien, the science supervisor for New Haven Public Schools, suggests that society may not value STEM subjects as something everyone should be capable of understanding. There exists a chasm between what our community thinks is science and what science truly is. In its most basic sense, science is methodology.  This practice is not only conducted by men and women employed in STEM-related fields around the world, but by everyone nearly every single day. When you swap out an ingredient in a recipe, for better or worse, you have done science. When you plant seeds and watch them grow into beautiful flowers or hearty vegetables—science.  When you have your hair dyed, straightened, or curled—science. When you throw rock salt out on to your icy driveway—science. When you receive a text on your cell phone, send an email with your laptop, or drive your car, you are using products of science. So why then do parents, administrators, and even teachers place STEM subjects on this pedestal? Dr. Robert Tai, associate professor at the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia believes it has to do with the type of tests we all had in primary school and that we continue to administer to students today. Through this kind of assessment, we have placed misguided accountability on students to memorize and regurgitate facts instead of understanding how complex ideas fit together. Dr. Keil adds that we are setting students up for failure when an emphasis is placed upon learning strictly details and facts, which may lead to an aversion of comprehending science as a whole.  Thus, the bigger problem is that in today’s world with social and economic issues including vaccines, genetically-modified organisms (GMO), and climate change, the discussion of science is inescapable.  Instead of testing details and facts in school, perhaps we should revisit scientific concepts throughout education (and life) to build continuity through development. If successful in this endeavor, more members of our society will understand how to relate similar concepts to solve problems and intelligently participate in public scientific dialogue. Linda Malkin, a science & magnet school teacher at the Celetano Biotech, Health, & Medical Magnet School in New Haven is on her way to transforming early science education. She adds that by using today’s technology in and out of the classroom, we can set the stage for students to stretch the boundaries of technology and come up with innovative solutions for future problems.  

The principle goal of education has and will continue to be to provide a foundation on which every individual may become an integral member of our society. In order to reach this goal, it is imperative for us to be forward thinking and consider what young adults need upon entering the workforce. We need to take it upon ourselves as parents, educators, and role models not to dismiss the importance that science plays in our everyday lives.  Science is not this awful or painful endeavor achieved by few, but is actually integrated into all facets of our lives.  So for the future of our world, whatever your place in it may be, talk to a kid about how you do science—and never be afraid to ask ‘why’.


The Yale exCHANGE STEM Education panel was held in Dwight Hall on March 5 and was sponsored by Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs.  The panelists consisted of Dr. Frank Keil, the Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Yale University, Linda Malkin, Science & Magnet Teacher at Celetano Biotech, Health, and & Medical School in New Haven, Dr. Robert Tai, Associate Professor at the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia, and Richard Therrien, Science Supervisor for New Haven public schools.  The panel was moderated by Elizabeth Carroll, Director of Education Studies at Yale and hosted by Peter Crumlish, Executive Director of Dwight Hall.  Approximately 40 participants including New Haven public school teachers, Yale students, postdocs, and professors, and employees of local museums and libraries contributed to the discussion.

Just in case I piqued anyone’s interest with the opening line above, birds actually have a few different strategies for preventing their legs from getting frostbitten.  One rather simple way is by tucking their legs under their body when sitting or raising one leg at a time into their body while standing.  Birds also possess an efficient system of blood flow into their legs, which interestingly doesn’t lose a lot of heat on its way back into the body. This is because the hotter blood vessels going down to the feet are very close to those cooler blood vessels returning to the heart.  Finally, the outer layer of a bird’s legs is composed of a thick and scaly skin, which is not as easily frozen or damaged as human skin.  Lastly, it’s good to remember that biology is never black-and-white; some birds actually do get frostbite.

Heather Marshall

Postdoctoral Fellow in Immunobiology

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ph.D. to D.C.

“A good taste of everything” was the resounding enthusiasm heard after April’s Yale PhD student trek to Washington DC. A large group of graduate students (in fields ranging from Pharmacology to Astronomy to Microbiology) enjoyed a two-day trip to explore some career opportunities away from the bench. The Science Policy career options were ubiquitous, with a touch of risk management and research scientist jobs thrown in for good measure. The trip was generously organized by two enthusiastic members of the Yale Student Science Diplomats and Yale's office of Graduate Career Services members.

Day 1:

First stop on the tour was the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) head-quarters. There, we were given the ins and outs of the coveted AAAS Science Policy fellowships. For a career in Science Policy, this stop was an informational bonanza, courtesy of the Director of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology and the Project Director of Outreach/Recruitment, Professional Development and Alumni Engagement for AAAS. As well as plenty of reading material, we were bombarded with more career suggestions than we could chew on – in a mere two hours, at least. We were advised to use to find the careers what suit us best. More information can also be found at We also listened to talks from a couple of Science Policy Fellows, one of whom works for the Cancer Genome Atlas, National Institutes of Health. Her job allows her to have one foot in science and the other in policy -an ideal scenario for those of us who don’t want to be too far away from the actual science.

The need for scientific writing experience was stressed and would, unbeknownst to us, be a recurring theme throughout the trip. The take home message was that a career in science policy requires a science PhD, most likely followed by a postdoc and a AAAS fellowship. The main caveat was that Non-US citizens are ineligible for the fellowships and should look elsewhere e.g. the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. Also, for those not interested in policy, the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program may be just the thing.

After a busy morning and rushed lunch, we scrambled back onto the Metro to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Crystal Drive. Here, we met a group led by a Yale Alumni. The Senior Biologist for the Environmental Fate and Effects Division, explained that her role mostly involved checking that newly patented pesticides meet EPA regulations. We also met a Toxicologist of Health Effects Division who assesses the long-term effects of certain pesticides while the short and long-term risk is calculated by the Risk Assessment and Regulation members of the Biopesticides division. Truly fascinating and informative stuff, even if they spend all day talking about various weed-killer! There appeared to be a lot of fluidity within the department – one could change roles with relative ease and this was commonplace. There was more emphasis on the use of scientific writing experience and the need to present complex data in a simplified way for these jobs. Most of the employees with PhDs had previously worked in academia or industry. That said, there was no indicator they won’t hire PhD graduates.

Day 2:

The next day, we made our way to the National Institute of Health (NIH). We were greeted by a panel of Yale Alumni. One was a Genetic Counselor with the Human Genome Institute and described how she helps and advises people living with genetic-defects. She explained that she felt she was close enough to the science and was really making an impact on patient’s lives. This was in contrast to Research Fellow in the for the Cell Biology and Metabolism program, this was very much a research and benchwork job. Another panel member was a Scientific Review Officer in the Mental Health and was largely responsible for accepting and rejecting various research funding applications. All members of the panel agreed that a postdoc was crucial – for all the aforementioned jobs. We were encouraged to apply for postdocs at the NIH as there is plenty of research funding and they can be 2 years long, not 5 years. The panel reminded us about importance of networking and having some scientific writing and leadership experience.

Following the panel, members of the NIH HR team provided some incredibly useful insight into the world of USAjobs. The website is used by anyone who wishes to apply for any jobs in the US government. However, non-US citizens need not bother – but are eligible for the postdoc positions. There appear to be many tricks of the trade when it comes to the application, so it is advisable to look up the job you want in advance and spend a few months molding your resume to match the criteria. Easy, right?

State Dept:
The next stop was the US State Dept. Here a panel of Yale and non-Yale PhD alumni literally WOW-ed us with their career path escapades. Their respective jobs in Science Policy did seem exciting and all carried various responsibilities depending on what department they were in. One common task was to turn complex data into a simple and palatable form for non-experts. This was true for the fellows in State for Oceans, Environment and Sciences and the Foreign Affairs Office. All the fellows admitted to working 10-12 hours a day and sleeping with their Blackberries. They had all done the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and expressed that it was key to their current policy positions. However, it was encouraging to hear that most of the panel members were not offered the AAAS fellowship the first year they applied. So, there is hope for those who are persistent. The people we met at the State Department all had similar personalities but very varied backgrounds. Perhaps it takes a certain ‘type’ of person to work there…someone without children, maybe.

After an amazing dinner at a local Spanish restaurant in the Federal district, we ended the trip in the bar called the ‘Science Club’ for drinks and hors d’oeuvres while listening to a few talks from the Food and Drug Administration. Although this was a brief glimpse into a life at the FDA, the Associate Director for Research at Center for Biologics Research (CBER) and the Deputy Director for Research at CBER, told us about the many fellowships and training opportunities we could apply for. They did not go into much detail about what their jobs actually entail but did encourage us to look up the training programs. For more details, see the Commissioners Fellowship Program and the ORISE Fellowships at

Overall, the experience was invaluable – from a networking and informational gathering perspective. 1 in 8 PhD students stays in academia – so it appears these agencies and the work they provide is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope the trip will continue to be an annual event.  For those of you who are not hell-bent on a career in academia should definitely attend. Even just to window-shop for a career. No purchasing required.

Olivia Kelada
Medical Physics PhD Candidate

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The US Needs More Comprehensive Guidelines for Laboratory Research on Highly Infectious Agents

Last month, researchers announced that they would resume work with potentially dangerous avian flu strains that had been modified in a way that allowed transmission between mammals. The initial discovery of the mutations leading to increased transmissibility caused an uproar among both scientists and the general public. The outcry reached such a pitch that the scientists agreed to a voluntary moratorium on their research. The stated reasons for the moratorium were twofold: to give enough time to explain the importance of the research to the public and to allow governmental agencies to assess if future work with the modified strains required additional security or protective gear. In some ways, the controversy over the modified H5N1 virus was a sequel to the outcry that occurred over the resurrection and sequencing of the 1918 influenza strain which, though dormant for many years, had been highly pathogenic and was responsible for a terrible pandemic both in the US and abroad. In 2005, researchers isolated fragments of the virus from a frozen specimen in Alaska, and used these pieces to reconstruct the viral genome. Many of the questions being asked today were also topics of discussion in 2005, leading one to wonder how many times this debate must surface before it is addressed in a systematic fashion. Since certainly research will surely continue on these and other highly contagious diseases, the US government must develop comprehensive guidelines to protect both the researchers and the public before the research is undertaken, rather than asking questions after the fact.    
Such regulations should cover the following points at a minimum:
  1. Should research funded by the NIH be subject to review to determine if the potential benefits of the work outweigh the risks before its undertaking? Without a doubt, this is a difficult question, as both the risks and benefits can hardly be accurately ascertained until the research is completed. Many researchers have lofty goals but research can fall short of actual concrete benefits. Officials in both the CDC and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases signed off on the resurrection of the 1918 virus, but it is not clear if this was the case for the modified H5N1 virus, though the researchers must have been aware of the some of the concern that would arise by modifying an existing, virulent strain of the virus. Even now that the work has been completed, it is hard to address the resulting benefits. The authors of the study have argued that identifying mutations that make the virus transmissible will be useful because it is possible to monitor mutations as they arise in the wild and if these particular mutations occur, their potential for destruction will be immediately identified and steps can be taken to contain those strains. However, criticism of the work with modified H5N1 virus has centered on the argument that the authors have merely determined a subset of the mutations that could cause the H5N1virus to become transmissible between mammals, and it is unknown how many other mutations or combinations of mutations could have a similar effect. Partial knowledge could actually lead to a false sense of security with regard to our understanding of the H5N1 virus.
  2. If such work is determined to be worth its potential risks, how can those risks be minimized? In other words, what precautions should be taken when working with the modified virus, particularly before a mutant virus is fully characterized? These precautions should aim to both protect laboratory workers and but also to prevent outside contamination or theft. Interestingly, even now that the risks have been partially assessed for the modified H5N1 virus, this issue is proving controversial. The US has not yet offered its guidelines for working with the virus, despite the passage of a year and resumption of work with the virus in other countries. For now, it appears that researchers in the US are willing to wait for these guidelines before resuming research, but they are losing time compared to their international counterparts. One can only hope that whatever guidelines are given will be broad enough to cover at additional research for the foreseeable future so that additional year long pauses will not be needed each time a new, more dangerous strain is created

  3. How widely should the identity of mutations that lead to greater virulence be shared? In the case of both the 1918 virus and the modified H5N1 viruses, the full extent of the genetic information was published in peer reviewed journals. Interestingly, in the case of the modified H5N1 viruses, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) initially recommended withholding publication of the specific mutations that increased transmissibility, a decision that broke with their previous decision to recommend publication of the 1918 flu sequence. However, the panel reversed their decision a few months later, recommending the publication of the identity of mutations go forward. Again, though the issue certainly merited careful consideration, it seems the lack of a comprehensive policy caused a delay in sharing useful information.
As the knowledge of these and other dangerous infectious agents grows, so does the potential for harm that accompanies some lines of research. At some point a line will have to be drawn on one or more of the issues listed above. That line should be determined before the work is performed, rather than forcing researchers to close Pandora’s box after it has been opened.  

Irene Reynolds Tebbs 
6th year, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Pause Your PhD This Summer—And Try Out Science Reporting

Studio B at KUNC, my host site for the summer where I learned how to make science stories for the radio.

Reporting is a bit like doing scientific research—you don’t really know what it takes until you start doing it. Most scientists have never tried reporting, and are understandably nervous when their first breakthrough gets some media coverage. They don’t give a good interview, and a poorly trained reporter might not know how to properly translate obscure protein kinetics into something interesting—so the reporter botches it, exaggerating claims and getting facts wrong. The public—and science as a whole—loses.
That’s where the Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program comes in. Unlike any other summer program I’m aware of, it’s a chance for graduate students to set down their pipettes (or test tubes, field samples, equations, or models) and see what it’s like for a reporter to get a good quote out of scientist, say, or simply just put that jargony sentence into, well, simple language (hint: it’s not always so simple).
The goal is not only to boost the quality of science journalism by injecting graduate students who know their science into the media landscape, but also to teach them how hard it can be—and what scientists need to do on their end to improve coverage.
Designed for science graduate students who are dedicated to improving science communication to the public, the fellowship carries the prestige of AAAS (the publisher of Science)—so future and current PIs aren’t frightened of your outside interests—and provides the hands-on experience that anyone contemplating a career change to journalism needs.
Fellows are paired up with a sponsor (mine was the very generous American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB)), given a brief orientation in Washington, DC at the AAAS headquarters, and sent off to various news outlets for 10 weeks to report, write—and in my case record—science stories.
My host was the tiny but superb NPR affiliate station, KUNC, in Greeley, Colorado. Folks familiar with ‘science radio’ may be aware of WNYC’s wonderful Radiolab, an hour-long radio magazine of sorts that asks big questions and delves deep into science topics.
My projects were all much shorter—either a minute or two put into the local newscast, or slightly longer ‘feature’ stories slotted into our versions of NPR’s Morning Edition or the afternoon All Things Considered program.
The feature stories were my favorite. It was an absolute blast (and challenge) to walk into a lab or climb up into a field observation tower, talk to some scientists, capture ambient sounds, and turn it into a three to four minute radio story. (For more information on my specific experience you can read my report on page nine in the Nov/Dec edition of the ASPB newsletter.)
Other hosts from last year include traditional print newspaper behemoths like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, smaller regional papers (the Oregonian and the Raleigh News & Observer), as well as another Colorado radio station, Aspen Public Radio.
Not surprisingly, with the journalism world changing rapidly in the Internet era, all of us—regardless of the dominant media type of our hosts—also participated in some form of online component, from blogs and websites to social media tools.
With these technology advances in mind, it makes me very happy to announce that for the first time this year, AAAS is accepting applications via email! Here’s some more information and tips for those of you excited to become part of the next class of summer science reporters:
  • You don’t have to rely on snail mail this year, but that doesn’t mean you can delay—the deadline is January 15
  • Spend time on your writing sample, and emphasize your interest and commitment to science communication. Most of my classmates had gone out of their way to take a course or workshop in science writing, write for a campus publication, or author their own blog. (Being involved with the Science Diplomats counts, too!)
  • For Yalies who want to wait another year before applying, a great place to start is Carl Zimmer’s short workshop offered through the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department. It’s a solid introduction to the basic skills required of science writers, and this year begins on January 28.
  • For another take from the 2012 Chicago Tribune fellow, see Jessica M. Morrison's blog post in Scientific American.

Jessica McDonald 
Immunobiology PhD Candidate 
2012 AAAS Mass Media Fellow

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Should Human Genes Be Patented?

Recently, there has been much controversy regarding whether it is legal for human genes to be patented; although genes have been patented in the past (~20% of all human genes have been patented over the past 30 years), the case regarding the patenting of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes by Myriad Genetics has resulted in a landmark opportunity for the Supreme Court to rule on whether any patent on any human gene is legal. The Yale Student Science Diplomats discussed this case, now known as Association of Molecular Pathology (AMP) v. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and its potential implications with Prof. Daniel Kevles of the History Department and the Law School. The discussion was titled, “Human Genes and Human Rights.”
During the discussion, Prof. Kevles provided the Diplomats with a detailed history of gene patenting, as well as the specifics of the case against BRCA1/2. These genes have been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, in which up to 8% of women with breast or ovarian cancer have mutations in BRCA1/2. The story began in 1990 when Mary Claire King located the BRCA1 gene on chromosome 17. A race quickly ensued to discover the exact location of the gene, which Myriad Genetics won in 1994 and again in 1995 for BRCA2. Myriad applied for 7 patents for these 2 genes in 1997 and 1998 and received them in 2001. Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court accepted claims against these patents for review. However, the legal history of this case dates back to 2009, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Patent Foundation filed a brief against the USPTO and Myriad Genetics. This was the ACLU’s first patent case, and it drew enormous interest by various groups: the plaintiffs were the patients, physicians and medical researchers who claimed to be disadvantaged by these patents, and the defendants were biotech and trade associations who claimed that the patents were necessary to stimulate progress in biomedical research.
It is important to note that Myriad does not hold patents on the naturally occurring gene in the body, as only a product that is “markedly different” from a product of nature can be patented, as previously ruled in 1911 by patenting adrenaline in its crystallized form isolated from the body, as well as patenting a genetically-modified bacterium in 1980. Rather, Myriad’s BRCA1/2 patents are for (1) the isolated DNA of the genes, (2) fragments for the genes to be used as probes for sequence identity, and (3) a diagnostic test for comparing an individual’s genetic sequence with known mutations/variants associated with breast and ovarian cancer, in which the holder of the gene patent receives a royalty for each administered test. These patents provide Myriad with the right to exclude all others from using their “invention;” only Myriad can conduct the BRCA1/2 diagnostic test and disclose the results of the test to a patient. Because of this monopoly, Myriad charges $3500 for the diagnostic test, which some health insurances will not cover. Furthermore, a patient cannot ask for a second opinion because Myriad claims that their diagnostic test is the “gold standard,” and clinicians and researchers cannot develop new diagnostic tests or even evaluate the accuracy of Myriad’s test.
For these reasons, the ACLU claimed standing to suit based on the technicalities of the test, as well as a violation of human rights. Regarding the diagnostic test itself, Article 35 Section 101 of the Constitution states that a patent can be awarded for a new and useful machine or manufacturing process or an improvement on such a process, or a new composition of matter. Myriad claims that their patent on the isolated DNA is in fact a new composition of matter because the ends of DNA are altered slightly upon extraction. However, the counterargument is that this actually does not matter because the base pair identities are still the same in the isolated form, and this base pair information is what is important for the diagnostic test. Regarding the case against human rights, the ACLU claims that holding a monopoly on this diagnostic test is denying patients of fundamental information and violates the 1st Amendment. Furthermore, the patent restricts progress in conducting research on these genes.
In March 2010, Judge Richard Sweet ruled in favor of the plaintiff because he claimed that there was no actual process involved in the diagnostic test; rather, it was simply a “mental act” of comparing an individual’s BRCA1/2 sequence with other DNA sequences known to be associated with breast and ovarian cancer. Therefore, the patent is not for a new composition of matter and is thus illegal. Myriad appealed this ruling, and in 2011 three judges from the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) ruled again: they also said that the diagnostics test was not patentable; however, they ruled against Sweet  2 to 1 on the patentability of a new composition of matter, and thus this aspect of the patent was upheld. The ACLU then appealed to the Supreme Court in early 2012; at the time, the Supreme Court did not look at the case but instead asked the three judges to reconsider their ruling based on another recent case, Mayo v. Prometheus, which disallowed a patent on the process of administering a drug and measuring changes in a metabolite afterwards; this case concluded that anything that retards the progress of science cannot be patented.
Prof. Kevles explained to the Diplomats the importance of understanding the background of the two judges from the CAFC who ruled against Judge Sweet and the one judge who upheld Sweet’s ruling. Prof. Kevles said that the first judge who ruled against Sweet, Judge Alan Lourie, is a former chemist (I’ve never heard of a scientist turned judge, so this was interesting for me to hear!). This judge determined that the “expansive issues” (i.e. the human rights issues) should be excluded from consideration, and that the patentability of DNA should be treated like any other chemical molecule. The second judge, Judge Kimberly Moore, is a former electrical engineer (!) and also said that the isolated DNA was patentable because it has such an obvious use for the biotech industry. Lastly, the third judge, Judge William Bryson, who upheld Sweet’s ruling, used to work in the Department of Justice and stressed the importance of the human rights issues associated with the case, as well as the restriction of the progress of science.
Now that the Supreme Court has agreed to examine this case, how should they rule? The main issue is whether isolated DNA is considered a new composition of matter and can be patented. The patent prevents anyone besides Myriad Genetics from making, using or selling information concerning the isolated DNA of the BRCA1/2 genes and any mutations, variations or rearrangements of this DNA.  There are many stakeholders in this case: on the one hand, competition in the biotech industry can be strengthened with the security that research findings can be patented (and more competition should fuel better research); on the other hand, patients do not have proper ownership over their own medical information, and other medical researchers who may be studying BRCA1/2 may be forced to halt their research due to issues with violating Myriad’s patents.
Prof. Kevles explained that this case boils down to property rights vs. human rights, and that these patents have so far only benefitted the biotech industry and are not for the greater good of cancer research and diagnosis.  He explained that this case has much more at stake than a patent for a new pharmaceutical because you can always develop another drug; however, DNA by nature is “unsubstitutable” and you cannot “invent around it.”  It is also interesting to note that Myriad has had difficulties obtaining patents in Europe, as EU law states that a patent cannot be awarded if it is “contrary to public order and morality.” Prof. Kevles also mentioned that many biotech companies have ownership over other genes, but these companies issue licenses for others to research these genes and have not experienced the same problem that Myriad is now faced with. However, I would be curious to know if these genes are simply “less interesting” or “less controversial” than Myriad’s BRCA1/2. Or, is it truly just as profitable to accrue licensing fees than to have a patent monopoly on a gene?
It is also worth noting that whole genome sequencing technology is actually cheaper (and the price keeps decreasing) than Myriad’s diagnostic test (although sequencing used to cost more before this patent battle started), so any trained scientist could hypothetically  sequence BRCA1/2 (and every other gene) in an individual’s DNA and compare this to the published sequences readily available online. However, the problem is that only Myriad Genetics knows what the appropriate disease variants of these sequences are (without other researchers confirming that the research on these variants is scientifically sound). The nature of scientific research is to have a transparent, peer-reviewed evaluation of your research, and the patents get in the way of this entire process and destroy the foundation of how research is conducted and validated.  Scientific research, especially critical research on cancer diagnostics, is for the betterment of society as a whole, and no company or other entity should have a monopoly on this process. In addition, the civil rights arguments of this case are extremely relevant and should not be ignored; in today’s society, there should be no question regarding whether a patient should have the right to all of his/her medical information using the best diagnostic tools available.
Still, it seems that there needs to be some kind of decision that will not allow for a similar case to be brought to the Supreme Court in the future. As Prof. Kevles said, Myriad does not want these patents just to be “evil;” they have a reason for doing so that they feel is valid. Every biotech company has the right to make a profit from their research, and patents may seem like a secure way to protect their investments for 20 years. However, this case has become so notorious because the genes in question have been linked to breast and ovarian cancer (I’m sure this would not be an issue if Myriad was studying plant genes, for example). I believe that the Supreme Court should decide that different rules need to apply in these situations where human health is at risk, and thus genes that can be used as cancer diagnostic tools should not be patented; this is the only way to allow for progress of scientific research and progress within our society as a whole. However, along with this ruling comes another Pandora’s Box regarding healthcare and insurance coverage for the information associated with an individual’s personal genetic sequence.
This landmark case will be addressed in June 2013, so stay tuned for the Supreme Court’s ruling!

Thalyana Smith-Vikos

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Does "Falling Off the Fiscal Cliff" Mean for Research?

Scientists are always worried about their funding. It’s the nature of the job; while most scientists would love to spend all of their time on experiments, reality dictates that they have to spend a significant amount of time writing grant and fellowship proposals. Faculty compete with their peers for large grants, and at the same time postdocs and grad students are competing for fellowship awards. For many if not most scientific disciplines, the primary source of these funds is the federal government. Thus, when news comes from Washington that the pool of money could shrink precipitously - as it has in late 2012 - the stress and worry become amplified.
How did we get here? Congress has not been able to work out a budget the way that it used to in the past. Part of the political difficulty comes from members of Congress having different electoral incentives to vote for or against budgetary measures (repeal of the Bush tax cuts, spending cuts, etc.). This led to the debt ceiling crisis and subsequently the Budget Control Act of 2011, a rather convoluted path that contains provisions for automatic, across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration. These cuts were designed as a “Sword of Damocles” to hang over Congress’s head during the 2012 session, giving members of Congress impetus to act on a budget either through traditional legislative negotiations or through the “super committee”. Despite their intent, both avenues failed to produce budget legislation, and the sequestration cuts are slated to go into effect Jan 2, 2013, in the event this month’s lame duck Congress does not come to an agreement with President Obama (or if both parties decide not to punt to a later date). Currently Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner are conducting negotiations on budget measures that could be put to a vote before sequestration takes effect. Much of the media coverage on sequestration has focused on broad economic consequences of sequestration or on the fight over taxes and entitlement programs, but I would like to focus on what is at stake for the scientific enterprise.
Sequestration calls for 8.2% cuts to be distributed amongst both defense and non-defense discretionary spending, with only a few programs spared such as Medicare and Social Security. Federal funding for science related-research across all agencies would face a $3.9 billion cut in 2013 alone. Two of the primary federal funding agencies for universities, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Nation Science Foundation (NSF) would face cuts of $2.5 billion and $586 million, respectively. The director of the NIH, Francis Collins, had said that his agency would be unable to award about 2,300 grants in 2013 that it otherwise would have granted. Areport by Research!America cites the economic toll  for NIH cuts in human terms: 33,000 jobs and $4.5 billion in economic activity lost. Cuts to the NSF would result in 19,300 researchers, students and technicians no longer being funded.
The anxiety in the scientific community is palpable. The funding climate is already tense after the one-time infusion of funds from the 2010 stimulus dried up. Here in New Haven, the Yale Daily News recently took the temperature of Yale faculty who are facing the effects of a potential fiscal cliff:
“I think we are all terrified,” said Chris Cotsapas, assistant professor of neurology and genetics at the Yale School of Medicine. “If I don’t bring money in, then I can’t pay the people in my lab, and I can’t pay my salary. It’s kind of that simple.”

83% of Yale’s federal research funding comes through the NIH, and even though it is an elite research institution, nobody will be immune from the effects of a significant budget cuts. MITprojects a loss of $40 million in research revenue. Undoubtedly a prolonged sequestration would have dire effects on graduate and undergraduate education.
But beyond the economic impact on universities, their researchers, and the local coffee shops and retail stores that their salaries go into, there is also the loss of innovation and new knowledge that comes from the research enterprise. Basic and translational science funded by the NIH provides avenues for drug development by the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. NSF-funded research enables new technologies for clean energy. Researchers create new inventions that can be patented by universities and brought into incubator startups or acquired by larger companies. If sequestration takes effect and Congress does not restore the funds, research-fueled innovation and invention will inevitably slow down and sputter across many industries. New life-saving therapies that otherwise would be developed in startups to and brought to clinical trials over the coming decade could be lost. Throw in cuts to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, $490 million) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA, $319 million) and the health and well-being of the nation becomes an even bigger concern.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. The scientific community is organizing to make its voice heard on Capitol Hill. Groups such as Research!America, the Coalition for Life Sciences (CLS) and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) provide opportunities for scientists to learn more about the legislative process, email their members of congress, or even meet them on Capitol Hill. Perhaps the research community is a few years behind the business community and other constituencies in terms of developing these relationships. It’s time to catch up. If you are a faculty, postdoc, grad student or a technician who is funded by a federal research award, call your congressman and let them know what sequestration means to your career and your livelihood.


Kenneth Buck 
PhD, Dept. Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology