Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Sarin in Syria

Friday, April 26th, 2013

It looks like someone is using the deadly nerve agent sarin in the ongoing civil war in Syria, which may very well draw the United States into the conflict. I did a project on sarin for a class in my sophomore year of college at NYU. Here is the handout I prepared to accompany my talk.

Looking back on the document, a few things stand out:

1. It’s amazing how simple of a compound sarin is.

2. I had bizarre taste in fonts.

3. I’d forgotten I had written about Osama bin Laden a full year before the attacks on 9-11-01.

University Overhead Under Siege

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Mallinckrodt Building, the Home to Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard

There was a fascinating article in The Boston Globe this week on an attempt by the Obama administration to curtail the high rates of research funding doled out to elite universities as overhead. Overhead, formally called “indirect costs”, is typically awarded as a percentage of the funding for a research grant. The purpose of indirect costs is to compensate the institution for expenses that are difficult to ascribe to any single project—e.g., the cost of electricity, water, administration, maintenance, building/instrument depreciation, and more. Each institution negotiates its overhead rate (as a percentage) with the government, and some of the most prestigious universities have huge rates. For instance, Harvard has a rate that stands at 69%, while the national average is 52%. These funds simply enter the universities’ general budgets; once awarded, there is no requirement that they go towards funding expenses associated with research.

Last year, the Obama administration attempted to curtail high overhead rates by setting a single rate for all universities, but the largest schools were successful in protecting their lions’ share by lobbying against the proposed changes. From the article:

Demands for a fairer system have been issued for years, the inequities cited in numerous reports. Vedder and other critics contend the varying overhead reimbursement rates contribute to a widening gap between rich and poor schools. And smaller, less prestigious schools around the country are tired of being shortchanged, particularly when the prime beneficiaries are extremely wealthy schools like Harvard, which has a $30.7 billion endowment.

Bin Guo, a cancer researcher at North Dakota State University who wrote to the government in support of an overhaul, said he supports a flat rate set between 40 and 50 percent. North Dakota State receives a 44.5 percent overhead rate.

“This will eliminate the waste of federal funds at many large institutions that spend the indirect cost on nonresearch-related programs,” Guo said. “If the NIH can save this extra money, they can support more research grants.”

Harvard received $656 million last year in federal research funding, and about $175 million of that was overhead compensation. Harvard maintains that its rate is high because the type of research that is done there requires high-tech facilities and equipment, in addition to being located in a region with high labor and construction costs.

It was interesting to learn that after World War II, when the U.S. government started funding university research in earnest, the rate for overhead was 8%. It rose to 20% by 1965, when the government started allowing individual institutions to negotiate their own rates. Some schools’ rates rose past 90% before coming back down when government audits revealed inappropriate spending (like on sports tickets).

It certainly makes sense for the government to pay indirect costs, but I don’t see a good reason why a school like Harvard should get much more than another school in the same geographic area. Harvard will already secure more in indirect costs by virtue of their professors’ winning more grants. Of course, the main reason for Harvard’s sky-high rate is probably that the school paid for a better team of negotiators and budget planners. It’s another example of the rich getting richer.

When I transitioned from college (at NYU) to grad school (at Harvard), I was amazed at how much more administration there was at my new school. At Harvard, every professor had an administrative assistant (some had more than one), while at NYU, such assistants were rare. At Harvard, the department’s mail room was staffed by two people (not counting the guys in shipping). Harvard’s financial office had an army of people, and each major instrument facility (NMR, MS, X-Ray) had a dedicated staff member. At NYU, these staffers serviced multiple instruments. I was also amazed that professors at Harvard only had to teach one course per year, and when doing so, could lean heavily on an army of teaching assistants. In hindsight, one wonders how much of this excess (relative to smaller R1 schools) is necessary or worthwhile.

Combatting Chemophobia

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Chemical Ed with GogglesThe annual ScienceOnline 2013 conference is taking place in North Carolina, and chembloggers Carmen Drahl and Dr. Rubidium are running a session tomorrow on chemophobia. You can follow updates on Twitter labeled with the hashtag #chemophobia.

Personally, I think the greatest failure of our field over the past three decades has been the steady decline of the public image of chemistry. Our “brand” has steadily deteriorated from an apex of “better living through chemistry” in the 1970s to the ever-worsening current climate where “chemicals are bad” and products are nonsensically advertized as “chemical-free”.

There certainly are cases where specific chemists and chemicals have had horrific consequences for the public (e.g., thalidomide or the Bhopal disaster), but surely these cases are balanced by the numerous ways that chemistry has improved modern life: from countless new pharmaceuticals that improve health to a wide array of new materials that make modern technology possible. That’s all “chemistry” and “chemicals”, but the average person-on-the-street would probably not associate these advances with our science.

Of course, this is a blog for chemists, so there’s no sense wasting time here celebrating all of the benefits of chemicals and chemistry. Rather, why don’t we focus on how utterly stupid our field is with regard to communicating these benefits? Despite the manifestly dire state of the public image of chemistry, chemists continue to do nothing to correct the problem.

But, Paul…is it really a problem? Who cares if the public dislikes chemicals? So long as chemists know better, we will continue doing good science. Why should we be distracted by general ignorance?

The problem with that argument is that we live in a democracy. For a democracy—where the People govern by voting—to function efficiently, the electorate must be educated and informed. The steady decline of chemistry’s public image is a massive problem, because it erodes support for our field. Taxpayers fund our research, and if they are convinced that not only is chemistry not helping the world, it is hurting it, then what is going to stop politicians from cutting funding? This is already occurring. Look at how many Americans vilify scientists who support the highly (un)controversial theory of evolution. We also spend many, many times more money on the DoD than scientific research because the public is generally much more concerned about the threat of foreign dictators than the combined threats of insidious disease and the global energy crisis. Seem stupid? Well, turn on the news tonight. What are people talking about, the Middle East or cancer? And what’s worse than people not knowing anything about chemistry is when they “know” incorrect negative information about chemistry. That’s basically where we are.

Hey Paul, isn’t this something the ACS should handle?

Yes! Actually, it is something all of us should take responsibility for handling to some degree, but the ACS should be at the forefront. This brings me to the point: WHAT THE HELL HAS THE ACS BEEN DOING FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS? As far as I can tell, very little in the public-image battle, and the miserable status quo is all the evidence you need that our professional society has failed its mission in this regard.

OK, wise guy, what should the ACS be doing?

I can think of a number of things, but let me give you two: one from the executive level and one from the grass-roots level. First, the ACS needs to get a handle on misinformation in the media. When someone blurts “chemical-free” into a microphone or opines about the hazards of a compound with zero supporting evidence, the ACS should have someone step up and provide a rebuttal. We need a “war room” at ACS headquarters that monitors all major media outlets and contacts editors and producers when something is wrong. The war room should have experts trained in public communication who are camera-ready 24 hours a day and a TV studio on-site for satellite interviews. Reporters are getting lazier; we must adapt. At the grass-roots level, the ACS needs to do a better job organizing outreach efforts and coordinating volunteer chemists to run these programs. More on that below.

Whoa. Volunteer chemists and outreach programs? What are you talking about?

I think it is important that every chemist spend some time engaging the general public for the purposes of education and promoting the benefits of our field. Let me toss out a ball-park figure: 5% of your time allotted to chemistry.

You want me doing what, exactly?

Pretty much anything where you are bringing science/chemistry to a population not already intimately involved in the field. I am not talking about writing essays for Angewandte or leaving comments on In the Pipeline. I am talking about: (1) judging kids’ science fairs, (2) writing letters to the editors of newspapers to correct misinformation, (3) running or volunteering at a local science club, (4) explaining your research at a science cafe, (5) volunteering to talk to a middle-school science class, (6) developing a lab exercise for high schoolers based on your research, (7) making a science Web site for a general audience, (8) making YouTube videos pretending you are “Phil Nye the Chemistry Guy”, (9) editing Wikipedia, (10)…   need I go on? Anything. Anything! There are thousands of possibilities. If you don’t think you have a good idea, other people should have plenty of ideas in need of volunteers.

You think this will work?

Yes. I believe it will help. I think that education and outreach, or “E & O” in NASA parlance, is exactly what kept a largely overpriced set of shuttle missions in operation for so long. Spacemen realize that they need the public on their side, so they appeal to the public. I assume astronauts on space stations have more important scientific activities they could be doing than giving interviews to the yentas on The View, but NASA has the big picture in mind. If NASA could keep the space shuttles up so long, think about all of the additional funding we could bring to a field of science that is much more successful at improving people’s lives.

What’s in it for me?

Lots of things: (1) you’ll become better at communicating and teaching technical material, (2) you’ll feel good having taught someone something, (3) you’ll be giving back to society – was there a role-model or teacher when you were young that made you want to pursue a career in science?, (4) you are making the world less dumb, one person at a time, (5) in thinking about fundamental concepts and how to explain/teach them, you will invariably come up with new ideas. Sometimes it’s nice to think about areas of chemistry outside your focus of research, (6) you will help to improve the funding climate by persuading voters chemistry is valuable.

Bah. Those are worthless. I can’t list those on my CV!

Actually, you can list outreach activities on your CV. They may even make you seem human, you robotic hardass.

Seriously, my boss/advisor won’t care. Actually, I’ll get in trouble because he views them as a waste of time.

Public engagement should be a shared responsibility. Perhaps the reason almost nobody pitches in is because “why should I do it if the guy over there doesn’t?”  We need to find ways to incentivize desired behavior. Maybe a small outreach component for Ph.D. theses? Maybe make it part of tenure packages?

But Paul, I went through 11 years of university training to become a high-powered research machine. I am God’s gift to chemical research. I can think of nothing more inefficient than removing me from the bench to muck around with third-graders. Can’t we just hire professional outreach people so I can be left alone?

First, you are going to be able to bring things to the table that an education professional would not. Second, if you are truly “God’s gift to chemical research”, then you are a rock star. People love rock stars of any field. That is why we are willing to watch events like curling in the Olympics. You will be a great help! Also, get over yourself! Astronauts frequently give interviews while working in space. I assume there are probably some experiments they could be doing, but NASA recognizes the importance of education and interacting with the public.

Paul, I am too busy, go away.

What if everyone were too busy? Everyone is too busy! You can make a little time for this. C’mon.

Paul, I am still unconvinced this is actually worth my time.

Fine. You are a selfish jackass. I hope there are enough good chemists out there who can make up for your dereliction.


Folks, if we don’t start getting serious about addressing chemophobia, we are going to find ourselves in a bad, bad place as a profession, and the consequences for mankind won’t be pretty either.

Please Vote

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Wow…has it really been three weeks since I last posted to the blog?

Yes. I’m sorry about that, but things have been especially busy. Unfortunately, I don’t think the situation will clear up in the near future, so you might have to endure a few more weeks of light blogging.

What is going on? A variety of stuff, including finally meeting the one and only Derek Lowe. We met at last week’s advisory board meeting for C&EN. As I expected, Derek is a super-nice guy. I wish we had more time to chat, but there is nothing more fun than spending a whole day dumping a steaming pile of ideas onto the editors of my favorite magazine and watching each of them try to hold back a countenance of disgust in his or her own unique way.

Moving on…

I wanted to make a quick reappearance for one important reason: to urge you to vote. For those of you who are citizens of the United States, we’ve got an important election coming up next Tuesday. I’m not going to tell you whom to vote for; I just want as many intelligent people who value science as possible voting in this election. Even if you are not in one of the presidential “battleground” states, there are important races going on at all levels of government. It is critical that you stay informed about the important issues and vote however you think best.

I also want to urge those of you who are members of the American Chemical Society to vote in the ongoing election for our national officers. You have until November 9th, so dig through your e-mail for a message from “” that provides instructions on how to vote. It is a shame that only 15% of eligible members bother voting in these elections. The world of chemistry would be a better place if more of us were to become involved in electing candidates who are willing to work to make real improvements to the chemical enterprise. Over the next year, I promise you that I will work harder to provide accurate and substantive information about where each candidate stands on the most important issues to our field, and to hold the elected officers accountable as the stewards of our society. The Barton/Echegoyen questionnaire was just a taste of things to come.

All the best, dear readers. Now, please, perform your civic duties!

UK to Slash Funding for Organic Synthesis

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

This is going to get ugly.

The United Kingdom’s EPSRC—akin to the NSF in the United States—is going to slash the funding of research in synthetic organic chemistry.  In response, the country’s synthetic organic chemists have taken to the streets and set fire to several buildings written a short letter to Prime Minister David Cameron expressing their frustration.

This battle has been shaping up for a long time, and it looks as though it is finally coming to a head.   I think there are tenable arguments in support of both sides of the issue; any decision simply boils down to where your priorities lie.

On the anti-synthesis side, you have those who feel that organic synthesis has reached an area of diminishing returns.  Proponents of the cuts will argue that organic synthesis is a mature field where new advances are modest and unlikely to have major industrial applications.  You also have those who believe that total synthesis—which still seems to constitute a major focus of research in this field—is a largely fruitless exercise where molecules ostensibly made for potential therapeutic activity are actually made just for the sake of making nasty-looking molecules.

While many people do question whether organic synthesis is still interesting, the strongest argument against it probably runs closer to a cost-benefit analysis…  Yes, synthesis can be interesting, but science funding is a zero-sum game and there are other areas of research that are more interesting and/or valuable to society.  I have to think that the recent downturn in the pharmaceutical industry—including the shuttering of Pfizer’s R&D operation in Sandwich—probably strengthens this argument.  The supporters of the budget realignment can argue that we should scale down the training of synthetic chemists now that there are fewer jobs for them.  There are also people who believe that the demise of natural products synthesis in academia has been unreasonably delayed by the historical popularity of the field and the large population of practicing synthetic chemists who stand to benefit by protecting it (e.g., making sure grants for it get funded, etc.)

On the pro-synthesis (anti-realignment) side, you have those who defend the field by pointing out its historical importance, its sustained popularity, its direct applicability to industry, and its potential application in medicine.  With respect to the new criteria for funding, pro-synthesis people can argue the chemistry projects that should be funded are the ones that represent the best science—regardless of the sub-field.  In other words, the synthetic projects that were funded in the past were funded because they were the best projects proposed.  Slashing funding to synthesis will leave these talented chemists out in the cold and will lead to the funding of scientifically inferior projects in other sub-disciplines of chemistry.

Another argument against the realignment in funding is that politicians are messing with scientific funding based on possible misperceptions about various projects’ potential economic value.  The letter to Cameron stresses that the government is overlooking the many contributions of organic synthesis to the UK’s economy.  It should also be noted that EPSRC’s definition of “synthetic organic chemistry” goes beyond total synthesis to include areas like supramolecular chemistry.

It’ll be interesting to see how this battle ends.  If one thing is certain, it is that governments are becoming less shy about dictating how science funding is allocated.  That is, legislators are getting more involved in selecting what types of projects can (and can’t) be funded.  Many people feel that the decision of what science projects to fund should be left to scientists, who are experts in their fields, but the fact of the matter is that science funding is an appropriation of taxpayer money.  Legislators—who are elected by the taxpayers to act in their proxy—definitely have the authority to place specific constraints on science funding and are not necessarily acting against the best interests of society by limiting how this money is spent.

If nothing else, this latest news provides yet another reason for chemists not to ignore the broader public when it comes to justifying their work and communicating its value.