Monday, November 3, 2014

Illinois Elections 2014--A Brief Guide to the Candidates

Election Day is tomorrow, and here in Illinois there are a number of races being contested that will shape the policy landscape at the local, state, and federal levels for years to come. But where do the candidates stand on policies that matter to postdocs, regarding science, education, and the like? We’ve put together this guide to help postdocs understand how their elected officials might approach science-related policy, based on previous actions and the stated positions from the candidates’ own websites. Please note: this is not an endorsement of any candidate, nor a comprehensive guide on their positions. For more in-depth information of the platforms each person is running on, we recommend visiting their websites.

We hope you’ll find this helpful. Don’t forget to vote!

Governor: Pat Quinn (D, incumbent) vs Bruce Rauner (R)  
by Ann Fitzpatrick

The race for Governor of Illinois is as close as it can get with polls putting Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner both on 50%.  Both candidates are strongly campaigning on job creation and the importance of education, but what does this mean for science funding? That is far less clear and neither candidate’s website addresses research or science policy directly. Governor Quinn’s website states that everyone should have the opportunity to get a higher education and puts a figure of $6 billion for increase in classroom spending.  Healthcare and the environment are also issues Governor Quinn is campaigning and these need the support of science research to flourish. Bruce Rauner is also running on education as a key issue although this is focused on high school and early education.  As Rauner is the newcomer, with no previous government experience, perhaps it isn’t shocking that the main issues he is campaigning on are spending, taxes and government reforms. Yet there are few specifics about what this would entail, other than repealing some taxes introduced by Governor Quinn.


U.S. Senator: Dick Durbin (D, incumbent) vs Jim Oberweis (R)
by Cara Froyd

Dick Durbin
   Supports strengthening the Clean Air Act as a mean to counteract climate change
   Introduced the American Cures Act, which would provide an 5% annual increase over inflation for biomedical research, in 2014
   Chairman of Appropriation Subcommittee on Department of Defense
   On Appropriation Subcommittee on Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies (includes NIH budget)
   Supports programs promoting math and science education and increasing an emphasis on technology and engineering skills development

Jim Oberweis
   Is not convinced climate change is caused by humans

Illinois 1st Congressional District: Bobby Rush (D, incumbent) vs Jimmy Lee Tillman (R)
by Kyle Dolan

Bobby Rush has represented the 1st District of Illinois since 1993. He currently serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he is the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Energy and Power. According to On The Issues, Rush “strongly favors” increased funding and development of clean energy.

Jimmy Lee Tillman II is “a political strategist,[…] talk show host, and historian” according to his campaign website. He is focusing on urban social issues including tackling homelessness among youth and improving reintegration of former prisoners into society, particularly female prisoners.

Illinois 2nd Congressional District: Robin Kelly (D, incumbent) vs. Eric Wallace (R)
by Elizabeth Little

Although little is publicly known about either candidate’s views on biomedical issues, this race could have broad implications given that Representative Kelly currently serves on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and the subcommittee for Research and Technology.  Most notably, looking at Healthcare Reform, both appear to tow their respective party lines – with Rep. Kelly voting against both House Amendment 450 (requiring Congressional approval for changes to Affordable Care Act) and HR 2009 (preventing the IRS from enforcing penalties under the Affordable Care Act) while Dr. Wallace calls for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Representative Kelly was voted into office in the 2013 special election to fill the seat left open by Jesse Jackson Jr.’s resignation.  She previously served in the Illinois House of Representatives and as Chief of Staff for the Illinois State Treasurer.   She holds a PhD in Political Science.  Dr. Wallace earned a PhD in Biblical Studies and worked as President and CEO of Wallace Publishing.  He has recently served as co-Chairman of the Cook Country Republican Party and on the African American Advisory Board for the Republican National Committee. 

Illinois 11th Congressional District: Bill Foster (D, incumbent) vs Darlene Senger (R)
by Kyle Dolan

Bill Foster was re-elected to represent the 11th District in 2012, two years after losing his seat in Congress to a Republican challenger. He holds a Ph.D. in physics and formerly worked at Fermilab. He is also a businessman and co-founder of Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc. He serves on the House Committee on Financial Services. Foster’s legislative record shows consistent support for science, including sponsorship of several bills aimed at increasing science budgets and improving STEM educational programs.

Darlene Senger is a state legislator representing District 41 in the Illinois House of Representatives. Prior to her political career, Senger worked in the financial industry. According to her campaign website, she is focusing on lowering taxes, reforming economic regulations, and scaling back or repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Local Postdoc Foodie Adventures: The Sequel

By Natasha Wadlington, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar

At our last adventure, a few members of the BSD Postdoctoral Association Social Committee had the pleasure of going to the first Hyde Park Restaurant Crawl hosted by the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce (HPCC). So impressed were we with the food, we jumped at the opportunity to go again when the second crawl was announced. This time we were accompanied by postdoc, Wenqi Yu, for her first social meet up with the Postdoctoral Association. 

After arriving, we had the chance to talk with HPCC’s Executive Director, Mr. Wallace E. Goode, Jr. and staff. I was particularly delighted to find out that I was the first person to sign up for the second crawl.  Once we checked in, we received a map of all the 8 local businesses participating: Cafe 53, Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, Hyde Park Produce Market, Kimbark Beverage Shoppe, The Sit Down Cafe, Shinju Sushi, Yusho and ZBerry

Across from the registration area was Yusho so we decided to go there first. This was a new addition to the 53rd street restaurants and I was highly anticipating what I would get there. We were told to go to a side window to pick up our soft serve ice cream.  Luckily, the weather was cooperative this crawl and we looked forward to the cool treat. The ice cream was very flavorful and reminded me of a popular cinnamon based cereal.

Next, we stopped by the three places in the Kimbark Plaza shopping center. Cedar’s was first, where we were invited to sit in and share fresh hummus on pita bread. The warm bread and hummus was a nice contrast to the ice cream we had previously. 

Eating our fill, we decided to go to Kimbark Beverage Shoppe next. This was a welcome addition because one of the problems we had at the previous crawl was the lack of drinks available after eating all of the good food. There, we grabbed a mocktail to quench our thirst.    

From there, we proceeded outside to Hyde Park Produce and were greeted warmly by the staff. They suggested that we try a little sauerkraut on our Boar’s Head hot dog. We never thought of trying that combination on a hot dog and we were glad we did. The combination complemented each other nicely.  We topped that off with a big fruit cup filled with watermelon, kiwi fruit, grapes, oranges, and more.

While the first restaurant crawl was filled with delicious food, it took us while to get full but this time around no one was holding back and gave us very satisfying portions. Despite the filling dilemma, we continued our trek to the next restaurant which was The Sit Down Cafe. We were greeted and allowed to sit down at a table. The atmosphere was really nice and the presentation of the food was really good. Once again, the portions were very generous with our Asian salad and spicy crab rolls. 

Our next restaurant stop was Zberry. This place I was looking forward to because a woman we met at the first crawl was the owner and she had informed us that she would be participating in this second crawl. We were not disappointed as we tried samples of their selected frozen yogurt to see which flavor we liked the best. We also had the option of picking a swirl of two flavors for our sample cup. Although we did not have it on our sample, we saw several customers come in and put on multiple toppings that looked delicious. It was really good and it’s a nice place to stop by after lab or work to get a tasty froyo treat.

The second to last destination was Shinju Sushi. Although the place was a little crowded, we were greeted warmly by the staff. Luckily for us, the rolls were already prepared for us to eat. Not only did they have for us the California roll sample and the vegetable maki roll sample but they also gave us a nigiri piece and seaweed salad on the side. The most appealing part of this restaurant is that it offers an all you can eat buffet for lunch and dinner. So any postdocs that want to gorge themselves on sushi but don’t want to travel too far from campus, this would be the place to go.

Our final destination was Cafe 53. When we got to the counter we ordered our food and was told to go to the back patio. This would have been fine but it was pitch black outside. The other food crawlers had a great sense of humor and turned on their cell phones so that we could see the available tables.  Despite a wait, when the corned beef panini came out it complimented the outdoorsy feel of the situation. We joked how it was like dining under starlight at a camping site.

This restaurant crawl was very impressive to say the least. We were all pleasantly surprised with how much food we were given and the quality of it all. There are truly some restaurant gems in Hyde Park and I would personally encourage all postdocs out there to explore the many options presented at both crawls. Hopefully in the future, there will be another installment. I’ll be ready and hope to see some of you postdocs join us next time. (Photos by Natasha Wadlington)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Scientists on Capitol Hill -- by Elizabeth Little, PhD

On Tuesday September 9th, I joined 19 other young scientists to take over Washington, D.C. as part of Hill Day, sponsored by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).  Twice a year, ASBMB hosts this jam-packed day of meetings to communicate the needs of the science community to members of the United States Congress.  Chiefly, we were putting out the call to increase NIH funding for Fiscal Year 2015 to $32 billion (and $7.2 billion for NSF).  These numbers may seem mind-boggling (one member of my advocacy group kept confusing billions and millions…pretty big difference) but the fact is that it doesn’t even represent an actual increase for NIH funding; instead, science advocates are just trying to keep up with inflation rates and maintain purchasing power, which has decreased 22% over the last 10 years. I can confidently state we’re all feeling the effects of the deflated NIH budget. 

During Hill Day, ASBMB splits up the young scientists to groups of 2 or 3, each led by a Public Affairs Advisory Committee member (an established researcher serving an advocacy role in the ASBMB).  My team was led by a department chair at University of Massachusetts and included an undergraduate at Ashford University in Iowa and a PhD candidate at University of Nebraska.  We spent the day running around Capitol Hill meeting with Congressional staffers from our group’s states (12 meetings in total for our little group!).  From the Illinois side, we got to meet with the offices of Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin and Representatives Bobby Rush (IL District 1) and Robin Kelly (IL District 4).  All told, ASBMB Hill Day incorporated 102 meetings with delegations from 32 different states.  Our objectives were pretty simple: provide a “face” to science advocacy.  We went into each meeting, briefly described our research before speaking about the general benefits of biomedical science and how we help improve society.  Then we led into our “ask” to increase NIH and NSF funding along with other ASBMB-supported policy issues, such as immigration reform to retain foreign scientists, enhanced STEM education, and research and development tax credits.  ASBMB provided helpful information on each Congressman we were meeting (biography, policy interests and committees) and some broad advice (“avoid partisanship”, “don’t suggest a program that can be cut to increase NIH funding”) but I was surprised how easy the conversation flowed in the meetings.

Here’s the good news: ultimately, everyone wants to fund biomedical research.  After all, it’s difficult to argue against improved therapies and healthier citizens.  Furthermore, scientific research benefits the national economy, with an estimated $2 return on every dollar invested in the NIH budget.  It’s not too difficult a sell in prosperous times, but in the current economy, it’s important to remind Congress of the worthwhile investment in scientific research.  The real challenge is to communicate why science requires steady, predictable funding and why the government should contribute instead of relying on industrial research.   Only one Congressman questioned how we should fund our proposed NIH increase.  Overall, we met with very encouraging staffers, including those from offices of Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Senator Dick Durbin (IL’s own), both well-known science proponents.  I even had to opportunity to personally meet with Representative Jim McGovern (MA) while he lectured me on all the benefits of funding science research (easiest meeting I’ve ever had). 

 (L to R): Dr. Bob Matthews (UMass Med School), the author, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA)

Unfortunately, our efforts to increase the NIH/NSF budgets will not likely amount to much this year; on September 19th, a Continuing Appropriations Resolution was signed to fund the federal government through December 11th, 2014.  This Continuing Resolution prevents another government shutdown but generally maintains appropriations at the current rates.  Until the government is able to pass a true annual budget, it’s improbable that any continuing appropriations will allow for increased biomedical funding.   That said, it’s increasingly important that scientists take a more active role to promote these interests.  I recommend ASBMB’s Hill Day to any grad students or postdocs who are interested in policy and/or advocacy.  It was a really enjoyable and well-organized adventure (and quite an adrenaline rush).  Spring Hill Day is generally in March and you’re not required to be a member of ASBMB to participate.  In previous years, other professional/advocacy societies – including the Coalition of Life Sciences, Society for Neuroscience, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, PanCan, and American Association for Cancer Research – have hosted similar events.  Short of dedicating a few days to head to D.C., all scientists should help the cause by contacting their representatives in Congress or by getting involved with different professional societies to speak on behalf of biomedical research.  We all understand that the research we do is important, but science cannot live in a vacuum; therefore, it’s essential that we better communicate our value and concerns to both society and our government representatives.

Elizabeth Little is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Medicine.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Can Twitter be a tool for science?

By Ann Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.

Do you tweet about science?  Would you consider using twitter to find out about the latest science?  

Science magazine has recently published an article(1) about the K-index, based on an article written by biologist Neil Hall at Liverpool University in the UK (The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists, Genome Biology, 2014 (2)).  The K-index, named after Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, attempts to compare a scientist’s fame by ranking them according to the number of twitter followers they have, normalized by the amount of citations their scientific publications have received. 

I don’t know how I feel about this.

I think this is because I’ve always seen social media as separate to the science that I do.  Sure, it has been the first to inform me of a celebrity’s arrest/death/misdemeanor, and that quiz to find out which city I should really be living in, but I’ve never used it to follow scientists in my field or to find out how a conference I wasn’t able to attend is going…. I think this could be a mistake, but am I happy with the idea of a K-index ranking how well I’m using social media for my career? Probably not.

In the original article, Hall suggests that those with many twitter followers should be back in the lab publishing more papers and has constructed the K-index such that those with a high value have a lot of followers but [relatively] few citations.  I think this misses the important role that social media is likely to play in the future, especially when it comes to outreach and science communication.  

When you ignore the K-index and look at the scientists with the most twitter followers (The top 50 science stars of twitter), this is what you find:

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Brian Cox
Richard Dawkins

No great surprises, all known for their dedication to science communication, and the use of twitter and other social media tools only seems to be helping them.  I wouldn’t call their twitter fame unwarranted and I wonder what the point of the original article by Hall was?  As he has not provided his K-index for any particular scientist we can only speculate on who he thinks is a “Kardashian of science” with an “overblown public profile”.   

He does have a valid point, which is that often, it is the number of followers a person has rather than any insight or expertise they possess that can dictate how far reaching their influence is, or who can “shout loudest”; but doesn’t this mean we want more scientists on twitter, not less?  

The idea that taking the time to engage in the communication of science is somehow reprehensible or that focusing your career in this way makes you less of a scientist is deeply troubling.  With how few of our politicians and business leaders have the background in science needed to understand a research paper, scientists who are willing to act as advisors and go-betweens are invaluable and this shouldn’t just stop with those in power.  The communication of science to the whole population is also important; social media is likely to be a key tool in reaching as many people as possible.

So instead of pointing to the Kardashians of science and calling them outliers who need to spend more time on “real work”, it should be acknowledged that the future of science communication is vital and its superstars will have more twitter followers than you.

One last point to finish on is that both Hall’s K-index and Science’s “top 50 stars on twitter” found that females were underrepresented (as I assume other minorities are, although this was not addressed in either article).  This is hardly surprising, given that women and minorities are underrepresented both online and in science in general, but that this is cause for concern is hopefully something we can all agree on.  Making science welcoming for all is something I want to be a part of and in order to reach this goal we should be free to use every tool we can.  Social media can reach a lot of people, let’s use if for science. 

1.       1.  Jia You (2014). Who are the science stars of Twitter?, Science, 345:6203 
2.       2.  Neil Hall (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientist, Genome Biology, 15:424

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How scientists can shape policy: A lesson from California

By Ann Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.

When asked about issues where science and politics intersect, few scientists I have met don’t have a view to share. But when it comes to making policy on scientific issues, how is the science communicated?  Can politicians be expected to read the latest publications or do scientists have to take the lead in turning scientific language into that which can be used for science policy?

Whether it be drug classification or creationism taught in schools, there are cases where some scientists feel like the government has got it wrong, so it was nice to read a recent Nature news article highlighting a successful policy collaboration between the California government and Bay Areaclimate scientists. (1) 

After publishing an article review in Nature (2) warning of major destabilization of the biosphere, Berkeley paleoecologist Dr. Anthony Barnosky was contacted by California governor Jerry Brown.  This led Barnosky and his co-author and wife, Dr. Elizabeth Hadly of Stanford, into science policy for the first time. 
Brown asked Barnosky and Hadly to produce a consensus statement on climate change that could be used in political circles.  Often, consensus statements are drawn up by a large number of scientists, and if the scientists you know are anything like the scientists I know, getting many of them to agree on cutting-edge research can be tricky, especially in written form.  This can mean that only well-trodden ground gets included and more controversial (although potentially valid) arguments are left out.  

The report cited 126 studies and it took 21 drafts s to remove all of the scientific language. After all this, the part that the politicians were drawn to, the idea of a “tipping point” for Earth, was the very part that was a sticking point for some scientists, causing some researchers to refuse to sign.  It’s a fine line you have to walk between vital communication of the facts and advocating particular policies.  The consensus statement seems to have managed this as evident by the 3,300 signatures in its support.

The scientific argument included in the report led to a series of environmental policy agreements between California and state governments in the Pacific region, as well as a pact with China to cut production of greenhouse gases. Barnosky and Hadly’s report has now made its way to 41 countries and looks to be a force shaping policy on climate change for years to come. 

Speaking to Nature, Barnosky said the biggest lesson he has learnt is that, “a scientist’s job isn’t over once a paper is published,” while Hadly went as far as saying that, “the consensus statement is more valuable than anything else I’ve done in my career”.  Barnosky and Hadly also admitted that it monopolized their time for a year and as taking a year off isn’t an option for a lot of researchers, especially early in their career, how should we be getting involved in science policy? 

To begin with, my goal is small, just to keep up to date with science policy news; if I’m aware of what is currently being debated, I’m far more likely to want to get involved!  Organizations like ScienceDebate, which encourages politicians to address science issues while on the campaign trail, and Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates practical solutions to the planet’s pressing problems, will be my starting point, and being a member of AAAS means I can get weekly emails about science policy, which I promise to read.  This being an election year makes it a great time to ask politicians their views on scientific issues; maybe they would welcome a connection with scientists at the University of Chicago.  The way forward may not be completely clear and I’m not sure how much time I can give, but I care and part of why I do science is to make a difference, no matter how small.  Barnosky and Hadly have proved it is possible.  I invite you to join me.

Ann Fitzpatrick is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Chemistry.

1. V. Gewin (2014). Science and politics: Hello, governor. Nature 511: 402-404.
2. A.D. Barnosky et al. (2012). Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere. Nature 486: 52-58.