Will scientists at Japanese universities again do military research? Article from The Japan Times about pending Science Council decision

The Japan Times: Science Council of Japan considers overturning long-held opposition to military research

The Japan Times

The nation’s largest and most powerful group of scientists has started discussing lifting its decades- old ban on defense-related research as the government seeks more collaboration with civilians in the development of weapons technology.

The move comes as the Defense Ministry, under the “proactive peace” policy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is pushing for the development of dual-use technology by funding research that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

It also comes on the heels of a report concluded this month by the national defense committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which recommended drastically increasing the ministry’s annual budget for dual-use grants to ¥10 billion from the current ¥600 million.

The Science Council of Japan, a group of some 2,000 scientists in fields ranging from engineering to the humanities to the natural sciences, announced last week it has set up a 15-member panel to discuss abandoning its long-held stance against military research.

Established in 1949 as a special organization under the jurisdiction of the prime minister but operating independently of the government, the SCJ has vowed “never to engage in scientific research to be used in war,” based on the bitter lessons of World War II, in which Japanese scientists contributed, directly or indirectly, to the ravages of war at home and abroad.

But in recent years, “it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw a clear line of demarcation between technologies and knowledge for military and civilian uses,” Takashi Onishi, president of SCJ and the president of Toyohashi University of Technology in Aichi Prefecture, wrote in his May 20 proposition to create the panel. “It has also been widely shared that such deepening of ties between academia and defense could threaten the foundations of science.”

page1image20576 page1image20736 page1image20896 page1image21056 The panel, comprising Onishi and 14 other people, including former astronaut Chiaki Mukai and Kyoto University President Juichi Yamagiwa, will discuss whether to amend statements by the council in 1950 and 1967, in which it vowed “never to engage in military research.”

It will also discuss the burgeoning field of dual-use technology.

Known for having spawned such innovations as the Internet and GPS, dual-use technology is common in the West but has long remained low-profile in postwar, pacifist Japan, with many institutions banning such research for fear of re-militarization.

A big turning point came in December 2013, when Abe, after returning to power the year before, had his Cabinet adopt the new National Defense Program Guidelines, said Morihisa Hamada, a volcanologist working at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and one of scores of scientists opposed to defense research.

The guidelines, in a marked departure from previous versions, spelled out the government’s plan to “actively utilize dual-use technologies in enhanced cooperation with universities and research institutes.”

In fiscal 2015, the Defense Ministry began seeking grant applications from civilian researchers for basic research in dual-use technology. The ¥300 million budget rose to ¥600 million this fiscal year.

Meanwhile, universities across the nation have faced a series of funding cuts from the central government, producing growing ranks of researchers starved for alternative funding.

Hamada said a range of universities and research institutes have conducted joint research with Defense Ministry-affiliated agencies in recent years.

For example, the Ground Systems Research Center, which conducts research on firearms, ammunition, ballistics and blast-resistant structures, vehicles and their fittings, and engineering equipment, has tied up with a range of academic institutions, including Kyushu University, Chiba Institute of Technology and Chiba University in such areas as explosives detection, robotics and engine simulation.

“The reason universities are now wavering is because research budgets have been slashed,” Hamada said.

He believes any research in the name of defense will end up aiding wars and urges concerned researchers to join an ongoing campaign led by Satoru Ikeuchi, an astrophysicist and professor emeritus at Nagoya University, to sign an online petition against military use of science.

While some scientists argue for lifting the research ban under certain conditions, such as using their technology only for defense, not offense, Hamada said such distinctions mean little.

“We should never forget the history of Japan, which waged a war under the name of self-defense,” he said. “All wars start with defense. To ban military research, the most nonconflicting stance to take is refuse any research funds from military institutions, be it the Defense Ministry or agencies tied to the U.S. military.”

The SCJ panel’s discussion will be open to the public, with the first meeting scheduled for June, an official with the group said.

The official added that it may take a year or so to reach a decision. 


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The history of science is written by the “victors.” So find your own narrative.

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The chosen version of the history of science defines “science” and shapes the present culture.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. No one is in charge of defining science for all.

Very few graduate programs require even one class in the history of science: many do not even offer one. Individual labs or departments may tell their own history, and several books on the development of molecular biology are popular around labs, but the philosophical situating of science in society’s history or philosophy seldom is institutionally done.

Yet this history- in all of its various interpretations- shapes the day to day life of the present day scientist. Each individual’s choice of project, likelihood of getting funded, expectation of a job, and relationship to the larger culture, is entangled in and influenced by past events and present conceptions.

One way one can understand the forces that affect the 21st century scientist’s work is through an interpretation of the influences on the fields of molecular biology and biomedical research. One subjective list might be:

ïFrom amateur science to professionalism.

ïLand-grant universities and the Flexnerian revolution: improving academic education for all.

ï(The revolution in physics after 1900).

ïPeer review grows in importance.

ïWorld War II, the Manhattan Project, and the start of huge government commitment to science.

ïThe unraveling of the properties of DNA.

ïThe Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and the beginning of biotech.

ïThe cloning of the human genome.

ïChanges in trainees: an overall increase in the numbers of science trainees, and changes in the make-up of the trainees to include more women, people of color, and foreign trainees. 

  • From amateur science to professionalism.                                                             The first few centuries of science in the USA were done by amateur scientists, funded by family money or wealthy sponsors, occasionally by the government. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was a significant move for the definition and professionalism of science: The National Academy was founded in the mid 1863’s, furthering the interest in science. Around turn of the 20th century, professionalism was emphasized and the Bureau of Standards was founded to fit into the ongoing pattern of world commerce.

    Amateur science- performed by those without advanced science degrees- is still done in the U.S., but it wasn’t respected until the tech revolution, which revered the outsider.

– Land-grant universities and the Flexnerian revolution: improving academic education for all.

Science and other academic endeavors were generally available only to the wealthy, who could attend excellent private universities in the country, or abroad. Government commitment to higher education was boosted through the Morrill Act of 1862. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln, this act granted federal land to states on the basis of the size of the states’ congressional delegation. These lands were then to be sold to provide an endowment for the establishment of at least one college or university.

…the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

The Morrill Act of 1862. Land-Grant Colleges and Universities. 2008. Education Encyclopedia,State University.com


By 1873, there were twenty four land grant institutions, which together enrolled 2,600 students, about 13% of the total US collegiate population. Agriculture was the most popular course in these early days. Engineering overtook agriculture as the most popular course of study through the 20th century. Practical and useful and applied education, available to all, funded by the federal government, became an assumption. 11 of the twenty top institutions in total research-and-development spending for fiscal year 1998 were land grant universities. [Land-grant Colleges and Universities 2008].

Peer review grows in importance. 

Peer review, the process through which scientists evaluate each others grant applications and manuscript submissions, is one of the cornerstones of research and science in the USA, and one that has enabled scientists to feel that the profession is and should be self regulating. Its origins are in England’s Royal Society, where members sometimes asked scientists to read submitted papers submitted to its Philosophical Transactions, and this ad hoc approach took place in American scientific journals as well. With the formation of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, ad hoc committees were formed to oversee the dispensation of funds received as private gifts.

The US Federal government, through the National Research Council, began supporting scientists after WWI, and committees oversaw the distribution of funds. By the end of World War II, peer review was routine.

      “Thus, by the post-World War II science boom, peer review had become accepted practice. “It came into full force after the war with the establishments of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health,” says Jonathan R. Cole, provost of Columbia and co-author of a number of works on the peer review system, including a 1981 National Academy of Sciences study on its ethical aspects. “That is where the principle of merit-based review was very clearly established and has been followed ever since.” Cole argues that, whatever its flaws, peer review has worked. “It’s been an essential part of the American science scene and one of the reasons why American science has done so well.”” Tom Abate. 1995. What’s the Verdict on Peer Review?

World War II, the Manhattan Project, and the start of huge government commitment to science.

Before WWII, science was funded by donors or industry. The Manhattan Project and the race for the atomic bomb was the first big government expenditure on research. Vannevar Bush, advisor to  President Roosevelt and leader of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, was responsible for the expectation of a government and science collaboration funded by the government after WWII. In 1950, the National Science Foundation was funded to promote science, advance health and prosperity, and secure the national defense.

The military continues to be very much involved with basic science, a collaboration that was protested in the 60’s and 70’s, but is now accepted passively….

“…in the first decade or two after 1945, the United States attempted to use its scientific and technological leadership, in conjunction with its economic, military, and industrial strength, to shape the research agendas, the institutions, and the allegiances of scientists in Western Europe in line with U.S. scientific, political, and ideological interests in the region.” P 3 American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe. John krige. MIT Press, Cambridge.

The unraveling of the properties of DNA and regulation of recombinant DNA work.

Watson’s and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA was published in 1953, and started a revolution in biology and chemistry. The wild and heady times of the early work with DNA have perhaps more than anything else imprinted themselves on the research culture. Both in the lab and in interacting with the greater world, was a sense of discovery and also of activism, of that science could do well for the world.

“Chemistry was then a field with a strong conservative streak. Not only was there a fairly rigid view of what path one should take to be a chemist, but the social and political environment in chemistry departments was confining. The field seemed to have retained much of its authoritarian German roots. Biochemistry was more welcoming to me, although the origins of many of its practitioners in the field of chemistry made it only a slight improvement. It was during my graduate career that the emergence of the new field of molecular biology began to dramatically revolutionize sensibilities and the climate in the life sciences.

    “Molecular biology was anointed as a scientific discipline in the late 1950’s, formed from a gathering of scientists in the disparate fields of genetics, biochemistry, and biophysics. Its roots go back to the entry of a number of young physicists into biology in the 1940’s. These pioneers, convinced that the fundamental problems in physics had been solved, sought new scientific principles in the study of living organisms. “ [Beckwith 2002], p 16.

The first gene was spliced in 1971 and among themselves, scientists debated the implications of gene engineering. Soon the discussion moved to the public, however, and Congress heard testimony from scientists, for and against, the new technology. The Cambridge/Boston area was the center of the debate about recombinant DNA, and remains a center for molecular biology research.  The recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) was established by NIH in 1974 and still advises the NIH on issues involving basic and clinical research with recombinant DNA.

“To the consternation of the scientists and the confusion of policy-makers, recombinant DNA became a testing ground for emerging national concepts in public participation. In the early stages of the DNA debate (1973-975), policy-making was largely initiated and controlled by scientists and administrators involved in biological research, that is, by researchers with little experience or expertise in public participation. Their role was a reactive one, a succession of stopgaps, and finally a painful accommodation to increasingly “foreign” pieces of politics inserted in their normally private decision-making machinery.” [Goodell 1979], p 36.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, bringing business to academia, and the beginning of biotech.

The Biotech industry and the incursion of business interests into the academic laboratory were jump-started by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Named for its sponsors, Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole, the Bayh-Dole Act adjusted the U.S. patent and trademark law and transferred the title of all discoveries made with the help of federal research grants to the universities and small businesses (later, also to non-profits and large businesses) where they were made.

Now universities and other organizations could market inventions made there, and individual researchers could personally profit, and so both the organization and the researcher were encouraged to patent their discoveries. A wave of technology transfer offices were established in universities, and Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

In 1976, Genentech, the first biotech company, was founded by venture capitalist Robert Swanson and biochemist Dr. Herb Boyer. Genentech scientists produced the first human protein, somatostatin, in a microorganism in 1977, cloned human insulin in 1978, human growth hormone in 1979, and the company went public in 1980. The use of cells to make proteins and hormones which distinguished biotech companies from pharmaceutical companies could be done in small academic labs by individual scientists, and many patented their findings and formed companies.

The possibility of making money certainly brought a new wave of enthusiasm to the world of academic scientists, and biotech scientists gradually gained respectability. In the 80’s, scientists might refuse to attend a seminar given by an industrial or biotech scientist, but as patents and millionaire scientists and biotech products became more familiar, biotech gained respectability with scientists….that is, with some scientists.  Acceptance of the intrusion of patents and lawyers into basic research has been more difficult among the generations of pre-biotech scientists who don’t believe personal profit is valid motivation for a scientist.

“I’m troubled that many researchers are becoming less productive because they divert their skills away from the goals of producing quality science and technology. Too many people in the scientific community are now driven by motives aside from the desire to make practical or basic discoveries. The accoutrements of success-large laboratories, significant funding, travel to many meetings at home and abroad- have overshadowed the joy of discovery. And too many scientists feel tempted to cut corners due to competitive pressures and the rapid pace of contemporary science. Science advances most productively when we focus on scientific merit rather than on the potential for attracting fame or increased funding.”  Yalow 1993 p 3

The opening of entrepreneurship to the academic world brought another kind of excitement, that of individual achievement and profit. It brought other source of income to universities, and opened job choices for researchers. It also raised conflict of interest issues to both individual researchers and to institutions, and started the commercialization and privitization of universities.

      The collaboration between molecular biologists and industry and government also set molecular biology apart from other biological sciences. In the reductionist times of the molecular biology revolution, ecology, population genetics, community ecology, were slighted in funding, and “important science” was linked to profit.

Sequencing of the human genome and consideration of ethical issues.

The sequencing of the human genome in 2003 had a huge influence on how science is viewed, and ushered in a shift to systems thinking, the integration of the parts, the ecology of components. Reductivism became less prestigious. Technology was directed towards systems, although one could also argue that development of the technology influenced the philosophy.

This change in looking at systems rather than at isolated components is, interestingly, reflected in changes in the sociology of how science is done.  Science has become more collaborative, more interdisciplinary, almost as if communication styles have paralleled the philosophy of experimentation.

The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 by the NIH and the DOE, after several meetings and talks through the 80’s. Reportedly, the DOE interest in the project developed from its study of genetic damage to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Human Genome Project was extremely controversial among scientists, some of whom worried about the ethical implications of the research, and others who feared that other science would no longer be well funded as so many resources were put into the genome project. As well, the tradition of the independent investigator in a small lab was challenged, as the importance of collaborative science to the genome project became manifest, and industry and academic labs teamed up on different aspects of the project.

 In 1998, Ventor started Celera with the intention of competing with NIH to sequence the human genome. The two groups announced the completion of their sequencing in separate journals (Ventor in Science, NIH in Nature) in 2001.

The collaborations of the Human Genome Project, across multiple labs and with academia and industry, became a model to continue to follow: business provided the big machines, academia the ideas. Numerous institutes and centers based on this model were begun.

 – Changes in trainees and greater commitment to diversity : An overall increase in the numbers of science trainees, and changes in the make-up of the trainees to include more women, minorities, and foreign trainees. 

With money pouring into academic institutions, more trainees were accepted. The increase in the number of biomedical and other Ph.D.s is putting a severe strain on the resources of NIH and of other funding agencies and institutions, and fewer people get academic jobs.

There has been not only been an overall increase in the number of students entering graduate school in the biological sciences, but also in the make up of the trainees. There are now more women, minorities, and foreign trainees.

    This diversity of scientists has helped to bring new approaches and questions to science and perhaps new and hopefully better ways of collaboration and communication. The importance of mentoring has become clear. But mentoring such a large and varied group of scientists has been a challenge, and there are huge variations in the quality and quantity of training received.

The feminization of the research environment is said to be responsible for many of the rules that help all with work-life integration. Parental leave, the expectation of a 9-5 job, job-sharing, are all effects of women’s (mainly) desire to work and to have a family. Boundaries have softened- the work and home environments are not as tightly compartmentalized. New trainees tend to appreciate this more than many older scientists, who see a less-than-total dedication to research.

There are many interpretations of history, and the above story was told with an emphasis on the cultural changes causing and being affected by research in cell and molecular biology. It could be told with entirely different events:

Through the story of the development of a technology.

Through the personal stories of individuals.

Through the high points of a specific field.

Through medical discoveries.

History is written by the victor, and the history of even modern science is the same, with the victor claiming objectivity. But there are many different interpretations of science that are shunted aside in business-as-usual science. These interpretations challenge the mainstream idea of the role scientists should play in society.

“Awareness of our subjectivity and context must be part of doing science because there is no way we can eliminate them. We come to the objects we study with our particular personal and social backgrounds and with inevitable interests. Once we acknowledge those, we can try to understand the world, so to speak, from inside instead of pretending to be objective outsiders looking in.”   “Science, Facts, and Feminism”, p 127, pp 119-131. Ruth Hubbard, in Feminism & Science.

The mainstream culture of science assumes  and partially defines itself as having an objective view of the world, and seems to many to be not amenable to other interpretations. But there are feminist interpretations as well that suggest the projects selected, the way problems are chosen, and the ways people communicate could be different. There are Marxist interpretations of science that most Americans would immediately dismiss not only because they are non-mainstream, but also because of the shadow of decades of anti-communist teachings in schools.

Still, there have been times when Marxist analyses of science have been tolerated. For example, with the strong Marxist political movements active in the 1930’s and 40’s in the USA, Britain, and France, there was a flurry of Marxist critiques of the history, philosophy, and politics of science, which faded with the collapse of the political movement in the 50’s. Again, Marxist criticism of science arose again in the 60’s and 70’s, and collapsed in the 80’s.  Gary Werskey, ‘The Marxist Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements

The dark side of science, and how it may influence your communications.

      It is likely that most scientists believe they are working for the good of mankind. It is also likely that most non-scientists believe in the good of science- but many do not. Both scientists and non-scientists might mention the Tuskegee syphilis study in the USA as an example of the misuse of science, but there are many other stories that have alienated groups of people to science. For example:

-The American Eugenics movement and its influence on the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany. (Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell.

-The deliberate infection of approximately 700 Guatamalans with syphilis by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1940’s.

Not all non-scientists believe science is inherently good, or even valueless, but is the force that creates wars, that helps some and not others. Not all workplaces are ethically run, not all personnel are ethical.

Establish your own history. In your own lab, group, or department, a shared sense of history will clarify and enrich the culture.

– Make a library to define culture of science. For yourself, your lab, your department, your colleagues, keep and circulate journals and books that will give thought and perspective to science as you practice it.

– 1 x month non-technical journal clubs.

– 1 x month journal clubs with the original papers that defined the field.

– Teach a mini-course in culture and history. Or politics.

In my untenured days, I did one supremely foolish thing. I developed and taught a “science for poets” course. (I haven’t the space here to explain why it was foolish.) The class read much of the original literature and commentary on The Double Helix–including original papers, meeting reports, Watson’s funny and irreverent book, Anne Sayer’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, and Crick’s later work, What Mad Pursuit. We did background reading on Mendelian genetics and examined what was known about DNA in 1954 to get a feel for what Watson and Crick had to work with. We read the later memoirs of some other central figures in the story. We watched the film The Race for the Double Helix, in which Jeff Goldblum cleverly plays Jim Watson. I even tried to have Anne Sayer speak to the class, but, regrettably, her health forbade it.     Gerald Harbison,  Guest comment: Genes, Girls, and Gender Politics. Science Insights 6:6.  National Association of Scholars.


A traditional view via slideshare of the history of science 

The American Eugenics movement and its influence on the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany. (See Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. The Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press, Baltimore.

Harriet Washington. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present


Communication with community activists: class matters

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Whether applying to a foundation for a grant, or working with local environmental activists on a gas leak, you will need to be able to speak with a variety of people- and they won’t all appreciate your emphasis on data and agendas. And if your work outside the lab involves solidarity with people from a variety of walks of life, you will need to be aware of class differences in your behavior and communication if you want to be effective.

With a deep belief in the meritocracy of academia, and perhaps a belief in the commonly taught narrative of the USA is that there are no class divisions and that the founders came to avoid such class divisions, many scientists feel that a consideration of class (or race) is not necessary, that everyone regardless of background is on equal footing with everyone else. In a community setting, you may feel completely comfortable with everyone there- but that doesn’t mean everyone is comfortable with you.

For those who want to understand class issues, “Class Matters: Cross-class Alliance Building for Middle-class Activists” authored by sociologist and economic justice activist Betsy Leondar-Wright (2nd edition in 2014) is an amazing resource.

The Table of Contents (below) shows the comprehensiveness and detail of the book. From vocabulary to the race/class intersection to meeting behavior and on, “Class Matters” will help not just with your communication, but with your understanding of the world beyond the bench.

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Scientists may find immediately relatable  insights in “An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich” in the “Obstacles to Alliances” chapter. Barbara Ehrenreich is an author and political activist, and her books have been instrumental in understanding the impact of poverty in the USA. She has a Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Immunology from Rockefeller University , where she was Zan Cohn’s first student.

Ehrenreich discusses the effect of the professional middle class (and scientists would fit right in there) ethos, and the deferred gratification and workaholism that is common among academics. Not everyone, though, has the luxury of believing in delayed gratification, and may look upon those struggling as undisciplined. Most truly believe that because they struggled through school, everyone could do the same thing, not realizing the advantages and privileges that gave them this ethic.

The academic mindset will even influence scientists’ expectations of meetings. Agendas, plenary speakers, and break-out sessions are not always the venue of choice, and and often not useful for a meeting designed to instill camaraderie, for example. There will be meetings without experts, which may seem rudderless to those used to academic conferences.

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Last tips- Don’t assume people are different than you, don’t assume they are the same. Don’t hide your class or be ashamed of it. Remember that you aren’t in charge and that there are many, many kinds of expertise. Don’t take hostility personally.


Scientist Peter Doherty writes “The Knowledge Wars” for citizen scientists.

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Peter Doherty won a Nobel Prize for his co-discovery  that T-cells must recognize both virus and MHC antigens on the cell surface to kill virus-infected cells. He continues in his immunological research. But he is making perhaps an even greater contribution by authoring books that explain the process and uses of science to both scientists and nonscientists.

“The Knowledge Wars” is written for the non-scientist (though there is much to learn for all), examining and explaining the culture of science through the prism of environmental change. Rather than another tedious description of the scientific method, he explains the culture though history, both the way knowledge is defined and publicized, and the times the scientific culture has been perverted by fraud or greed or stupidity. Doherty makes it clear that scientists are human, that anyone can be a scientist (“And don’t think you have to attend a fancy school or Ivy League university….”, and that plenty of non-scientists are contributing in a major way to scientific knowledge. He does this without being patronizing, using the huge amounts of vital data gathered by birdwatchers as an example of science that could not be done without non-scientists.

But knowledge is power, and knowledge becomes a tool for those who want power. So politicians, individuals, and corporations whose profit or loss depends on data will do their best to obscure the public message and promote the interpretation of data that they want. Doherty explains how layfolk can interpret these coded messages, and he added an appendix with advice on how to judge the credibility of particular scientists via web information, and to read a scientific paper.

Knowledge is power!



Academic scientists and NIMBY: unionization, sexual harassment, “aspirational peers,” and other regressive 2015 moves

Academic scientists: Not in my backyard!

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2015 was an exciting and activist year in the USA, with campuses alive once more with students and faculty campaigning against racism, and for divestment of endowments from fossil fuel companies and from the Occupied Territories.

But with progress comes pushback and regression. Science is a conservative behemoth, and while academics are generally considered to be liberal, academic scientists and clinicians are often the most socially conservative members on campus.

How discouraging to see how few scientists see themselves as citizens of the world, but rather as individuals out of an Ayn Rand novel.

The University of Washington: no union for us.

One example is the unionization campaign going on the at the University of Washington, where the 750 or so faculty are debating the pros and cons of joining the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). As universities have relied more and more on adjuncts and other non-tenured faculty (tenure and tenure track make up less than 25% of university faculty ) , and have ignored the input of university members in favor of the desires of donors and trustees, the need for unionization and collective bargaining has become more and more apparent. Non- academic university workers, students, postdocs, and faculty members at universities all over the country have unionized or are considering unionization as a way to weather the current climate of corporatization .

Some of the 42 campuses that have unionized the last couple of years are Georgetown University, Howard University, and the University of Chicago…..but the University of Washington anti-union movement says that  “No premier research-intensive university in the U.S.- no true peer of the University of Washington, and no institution of a quality to which we aspire- has a unionized tenure track faculty.”  And they refer to the lack of unions among their “aspirational peers” of further proof that unions are not a good idea.

Led by spokespersons Paul B. Hopkins (Chemistry) and Ed Lazowska  (Computer Science and Engineering), the anti-union campaign is heavily, heavily weighted with basic and medical science signees of the Statement of Opposition .

There are several recurring threads running through the Statement of Opposition – entitlement, exceptionalism,  and not- in- my -backyard (NIMBY) being the most obvious. Basically, the statement complains that SIEU, the Service Employees International Union, represents caregivers in hospitals, janitors, bus drivers,etc,  not people with the same cares that we have. There is no evidence that our salaries would be higher with unionization. And unions in general try to get better salaries across the board and if that happens, we the signers, won’t have the money to attract great faculty and it won’t be a good university any more. We would have to follow union rules, such as limited out-of-cycle raises.

“Many of the undersigned recognize the positive role played by labor unions in our country. But…..”  Yes, unions are, in principle, a great idea, but we don’t think it helps us right now- and us is a small, special group. There is no mention that some faculty are profiting by the lack of benefits, pay, and security that others function under.

The statement of opposition ends with a fantastic thought- that unions are historically associated with the Democratic Party in the USA, and many of the signers are not democrats and don’t want to be to be part of this political activity.

A comprehensive view of the pros and cons of unionization with a focus on the perspective for unionization from Amy Hagopian (Public Health) can be found here.

The University of Maryland: more postdocs at less pay for us.

Another regressive move spearheaded by scientists this year took place at the University of Maryland, College Park (incidentally, the most militarized university in the USA). Norma Andrews ( Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics) and Iqbal Hamza ( Animal and Avian Sciences ) wrote a letter which was signed by 131 tenured/tenure-track life science faculty) to explain why some postdoc positions should not come with the same benefits of other postdoc positions- that is, to allow lab heads to pay less so they could have more postdocs . At a time when many senior scientists are trying to help postdocs, the University of Maryland faculty, as are the University of Washington faculty, are trying very hard to better themselves at the benefit of others.

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Of course, they don’t put it that way, but explain that it is better for Science, you see. And, interestingly, the bizarre phrase “aspirational peers” that appeared in the University of Washington letter made an earlier appearance in the University of Maryland letter as a reason to not better fund all postdocs…because it is not done by their “aspirational peers”.  Jonathan Dinman’s (chair of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics) reiterated the aspirational peer defense at a University Senate meeting. Postdocs, seeing that faculty will not help them, may look to the success of postdoc unions  to find fair labor treatment.

Mike the Mad Biologist has an interesting blogpost on postdoc pay, with comments from postdocs- and you can see how against the grain the faculty at the University of Maryland are going in their quest to take care of themselves, first.

The University of California at Berkeley: He is ours, he is famous, and what he is doing isn’t that bad.

Through the years, women complained of harassment by Geoff Marcy (Astronomy), colleagues turned a blind eye , and while the University of California investigation of sexual harassment claims declared Marcy guilty, it also determined that Marcy’s actions warranted only a warning and strong parameters.

Social media from faculty, postdocs and the public started a wave of judgement, and finally, Marcy was forced to resign .

It was a victory, but it was a disturbingly hard-won victory. For at least 20 years , first at San Francisco State and later at Berkeley Marcy felt entitled to do what he wanted, and the silence of his colleagues, and the powers that be at San Francisco State and Berkeley protected him only until public and academic outcry made his forced resignation inevitable.

Harvard University: More recognition for me.

Being able to stand up for yourself is an important part of being a successful person and scientist. But when your reverence for yourself becomes your main task, it might be time to advocate for others. George Church tried to correct the mistake of the world in not giving enough recognition to- George Church.  Petty, and pathetic, to see a well-known and well-awarded scientist scrabble to get more for himself.

Perhaps Church is politicking to be one of the probably CRISPR Nobel laureates. His case is certainly one of the lighter cases of  2015 regressive scientist behavior, and won’t need to inspire the wonderful activism that is associated with unionization, reduction of post doc benefits, or sexual harassment.


Is animal experimentation really “cute”?


Today’s Scientist had an entertaining article  on holiday presents for scientists: Brain-slice coasters, silk scarves with red blood cells, bands of one’s own DNA blown up to portrait size, for example.

Another present suggestion was a package of knitting patterns of dissected animals available from a talented knitter at her company aKNITomy , where “biology no longer smells like formaldehyde, but like your favorite sweater.”

Of all the lovely objects available at aKNITomy, why would The Scientist choose animal dissections as the leading illustration for the article? Are dead frogs and dead rats, laid open as by 7th graders in class, cute? Fun? Happy reminders of high school?

A sense of humor is important, and a sense of humor about things that bother us can sometimes mitigate our nervousness….but it can also stop us from really looking at what is happening.

Hard to say what the artist’s motivation for cute and gruesome dissection knitting kits is, but The Scientist might well be trying to do what many scientist do- minimize the pain and cruelty of animal experimentation with humor.

Below is another illustration of this dark humor at the Narishige table in the exhibition hall at the 2015 Experimental Biology convention in Boston. Narishige makes equipment for micromanipulation in physiological research…for cells, yes, and for animals. To illustrate some of their devices for manipulation of live animals, they used little cuddly stuffed animals in place of pictures of real animals. Most scientists walked past the exhibit with little curiosity and no outrage or shame.

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The belief in the righteousness of humans’ right to dominion over the other creatures of the earth lies beneath much scientific training and practice. The devastation of rain forests, elimination of whole species, the poisoning of rivers and streams are actually akin the assumption that animals in labs are here just for us. For some mysterious reason, scientists seem to believe that the nobility of their quest to better human lives excuses causing pain and suffering to animals. For some mysterious reason, scientists seem to believe that the cruelty they cause is not the same as the cruelty caused by pit bull fighting or the abandonment and starvation of pets.

Somehow, many scientists seem to believe that the pain their own little poodles and kitties would feel is a fear more special and in need of prevention than the fear of all those beagles and cats and mice in the lab.

Shouldn’t the first law for scientists, as well as for physicians, be First, do no harm? Don’t cause pain? To anyone or any creature? Can science be a non-violent profession?

Animal experimentation is contrary to what many scientists believe and how they want live their lives, but cruelty to animals has become accepted as a part of science. It is insinuated that folks who do not believe in the use of animals for experiments cannot be serious about science. And so, people make jokes to mask the cognitive dissonance. They are quiet about animal experimentation, ashamed: They don’t tell their children or their dates how many mice they killed that day. They compartmentalize their scientific and family lives.

Rationalization is what scientists are trained to do. But it takes a toll when it is dishonest. Some people, including scientists, are unabashed believers of domination. Of dominance. But many people who are not dominance believers are somehow still convinced that animal experimentation is a given, without alternatives. Others think that animal experimentation should be carefully regulated- except for their own research.

There are groups that advocate for the use of animals in research. There are groups  that advocate against it. Read about it, if you will. But know the reality of what animal experimentation is about, and make sure your scientific side follows the same principles as your human side.

More humanity might even change the face of science and society.


Academia is twitching with activism

Campuses are coming alive. Finally.


It’s been happening all along, but almost 5 years after Occupy, several years after protests against college endowment investments in fossil fuel companies and spirited boycott and divestment programs against Israel and its occupation of Palestine, and less than year after Black Lives Matter went from a hashtag to a movement, 

students and faculty at colleges and universities are moving to change harmful and racist behavior.


It has been easy for mainstream press to dismiss Occupy, as there haven’t been national policy changes that can easily be attributed to Occupy. But the local movements were hugely empowering, and participants have become committed and skilled members of other campaigns. For example, scientist Jess Spear of Occupy Seattle was successful as head of a campaign for the implementation of a $15.00 minimum wage, a movement that is itself now sweeping the country.


Over the past few years, more and more campuses protested environmental problems

 This April, for example, there was a standoff at Washington University against Peabody Oil and a week-long sit-in at Harvard to call for disinvestment of the endowment from fossil fuel companies. Students at Stanford just began an indefinite sit-down protest against the slow pace of its divestment of its 22.2 BILLION dollar endowment fund from fossil fuel companies. 13 universities or their foundations have divested from fossil fuels.

Black Lives Matter  is started as a hashtag in protest of brutal police actions against African Americans, and is now a movement with 26 chapters in the USA, and protests about racism on campus are growing.


Students at Occidental College are asking that the president step down as part of their demands to counter sexism and racism on campus, and students at Amherst have delivered a list of demands to administration to deal with racism. Protests have led to resignations. The dean of Claremont McKenna College resigned this month after students protested treatment of low-income and minority students , as did the President of the Univeristy of Missouri for racist policies. Protests at Yale as well as the University of Missouri have led to mixed reactions, of course. 

It’s happening.


Geoffrey Marcy, John Johnson, and the bystander culture of scientists

last copyIt happened again- but it turns out that it has been happening for a while.  And everyone knew it was.

Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy was found guilty of sexual harassment in June, and his punishment, should it happens again, is that he could be suspended or dismissed. (He is getting well-earned though delayed social flack from his community.)

Does it matter that Geoff Marcy is a superstar astronomer? Of course it does. It makes his actions far more insidious, and the protection granted him far more hideous and deliberate. It also doesn’t matter that he half-apologized (“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcome by some women…” ) in a letter posted on his Berkeley webpage, still not admitting what he had done but apologizing only for the perceptions others may have of his actions.

One of his protectors, Marcy’s former student and now Harvard astronomy professor, John Johnson, blogged of the community knowledge of Marcy’s behavior in the astronomy field and his own reaction:

“In 2013 I received tenure. Leading up to my tenure decision, I decided that I would use my position, voice and male privilege to finally do something about the open secret—Geoff’s long con of holding the community in fear to provide himself cover to continue harassing our junior female colleagues. Yes, I have greatly benefited from Geoff’s letters over the years. But his publication record shows that he has benefitted from my scientific productivity. In 2013 I figured we were square, and I effectively ended our 13-year collaboration.

“I’m ashamed that I didn’t speak out sooner. I hate that academia’s power structure, which allows a single phone call from a senior member to sink a person’s career, so often forces junior people into silence for fear of losing their jobs. For this reason I am in awe of the bravery of the women who spoke out all the more; they were far braver than I and other male astronomers have been over the years.”

This apology is as supercilious as Marcy’s. It may be worse. It doesn’t appear he reported his mentor, but mentally decided to not support Marcy any longer. Johnson rationalized, blaming “academia’s power structure” for his own lack of will. Bizarrely, in some weird rationalization, he could only not support Marcy after he had paid some imaginary academic debt as a point of honor. Did he owe nothing to his woman colleagues? His actions with his colleagues’ actions were as harmful to their careers as were Marcy’s.

(My reply to Johnson’s post was never published on his website.)

It sounds as if a whole lot of people in astronomy should be ashamed of themselves.

Read Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” to remind yourself of the results of compliance with wrongdoing and with turning a blind eye to abuses of power.

Harassment can be shocking and unrecognizable. If you are trying to find help, check out Joan Schmalz’s Women in Astronomy blog post “Advice: Dealing with discrimination and harassment.”

See Athene Donald’s blogpost for a list of everyday things to look out for and act on- before you have an escalated situation.

Be in the habit of speaking the truth.







Tim Hunt and Alice Huang: Power, sex, and business as usual.


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So a Nobel Prize winner goes to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, and says at lunch:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” 

and added that he was “in favour of single-sex labs” but “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women.” He also described himself as a chauvinist pig .

Tim Hunt was forced to resign from his honorary post at University College London after a world-wide storm of publicity.

8 Nobel Prize winners and the mayor of London  came to his defense, several saying that the firing of Hunt was a blow against academic freedom. Sir Andre Geim, who shared the Nobel with Hunt, said that Hunt had been crucified by ideological fanatics.

Idealogical fanatics? Right, that equality issue is so far out there that only a fanatic would defend it.

Hunt’s self-serving defense suggested he knew was trying in his way to be honest but spoke too lightly, felt badly, but he gave no indication that he understood why people were bothered.

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It is true that people – I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.”

It is true that people fall in love in the lab. Hunt met his wife, Mary Collins, when he supervised her at Cambridge. Scientists meet scientists in labs, but when one is the boss, and male, there is not likely to be a level playing field.

The Hunt debacle followed by only a few weeks another media firestorm, centered around Alice Huang. Huang, who served in many scientific and administrative positions, writes a column for Science Careers. A postdoc wrote to ask advice about her advisor, who continually tried to look down her shirt. Huang answered with a little riff about how good it is that there are people of the opposite sex in labs, and that the behavior of the advisor was common but did not rise to the definition of sexual harassment.

Huang then advised the postdoc to take it with good humor, to be sure her advisor listened to her ideas and her science, and ended by saying, “His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on on your science and his best advice.”

Yes, she does, but this sounds a lot like “put up and shut up,” a real disappointment in view of Huang’s usual strong positions in favor of gender equality in the lab. And while there was a fuss and so many complaints that Science removed the article , the level of discontent came nowhere reaching the magnitude of the reaction that Hunt’s remarks did. Much of the anger seemed to be directed against AAAS and Science for removing the article.

Huang apologized for putting AAAS and Science in the firing line, and said she was trying, in view of all the harassment she had seen, to give a realistic response. She said she intends to take reader’s comments and write another column.

What were Hunt and Huang thinking, to say what they said? Did they think it was okay?

Perhaps Hunt was thinking…Look, love in the lab is tough on everyone. I myself didn’t deal well with it, and didn’t always deal well with women. They caused me inconvenience. It may have cost them more than that, and that isn’t fair. (But he didn’t say that.)

Maybe Huang was thinking….Look, it is absolutely wrong that your advisor is staring at your chest. But frankly, there isn’t much you can do that isn’t going to put you in a worse position if you complain. It isn’t right, and we need to find a way to deal with situations that seem petty but could change someone’s career. (But she didn’t say that.)

Huang’s and Hunt’s remarks show the still-present sexism and the penalty women pay to be in the lab. But I think Huang’s remark, though better-intentioned and less-selfish, caused much more harm. It seems to be an admission of hopelessness.

That postdoc should be able to say- with the humor Huang recommends- Hey, please stop looking at my breasts. And the advisor should be able to say- Gosh, I am sorry, that is so rude! It won’t happen again! So, let’s look at those results…..and he would never mention it again, or act resentful, or withdraw, or be passive-aggressive. Or look at her chest.

The most likely thing that would happen if the postdoc speaks up is that the advisor makes the atmosphere so uncomfortable that the postdoc must seek another work situation. If she wants to remain in the lab and wants a good recommendation, she has to keep her mouth shut.

There are no structures in academia that do not bow to power, usually male. That is what Huang should have mentioned. This needs to be changed. Lab heads in power probably could use some emotional and social counseling. 

Huang also met her husband, Nobel-prize winning David Baltimore, through research, and he was her supervisor at the Salk and at MIT. Did this make for an even playing field for others in the lab? If not, would there be a way to quietly seek justice? Will it remain that the person with the lesser power will always have to move labs or projects or universities?

Both Hunt’s and Huang’s remarks indicate the reality of what many lab heads  feel about their female lab members. But Huang’s remarks, with her advice that will keep the good old boy system in place, is much more harmful. I hope she dedicates a column to heads of labs.


So, what can one do, for oneself, and to change the culture so people can talk more openly about sexism and power and the sometimes abuse of human and always present sexual attraction?

Know who you are and what your boundaries are. Know the implications of breaking those boundaries, no matter what your position. To those in creative careers, even the concept of boundaries is anathema, but without universal self-awareness and openness, boundary-breaking ends up getting handled by policy and regulation. Human Resource (HR) representatives are the usual mediators. But don’t substitute mediation for being thoughtful and clear about your own actions.

If you are in theposition of the postdoc who wrote to Huang, go talk to your Human Resources rep. Abuse of power, as all abuse, thrives in secrecy. It could be that the particular chest-gazer has already generated complaints, and you will be validated, and won’t be questioning your sanity for being troubled by what everyone is telling you is a minor issue.

It is also good to get another opinion, see what another person’s reaction would be, and to find whether  HR and your institution will back you up.

Your goal, presumably, is to have a solid professional relationship with your advisor. HR can help guide you through a conversation that is direct, calm, and still non-confrontational.

(Of course, if there is blatant harassment and you have reason to worry that your position in that lab is in jeopardy, document even before you go to HR.)

Keeping silent about something that is wrong will sap your confidence in science as well as the rest of your personal life.

If you are the advisor, and a postdoc comes to you with a complaint, listen. Really listen. Avoid an emotional reaction- you might not even have known you did/do anything. Apologize. You might not be ready to apologize for something you don’t think you did, yet an apology with reservations is no apology at all: try something such as “I am shocked to hear that, and I will make sure I am always careful not to compromise our professional relationship.”

You, too, as a lab head, should go to HR and report on that conversation, and whether or not you feel it is justified.

Sexual attraction is part of life and lab, but you are abusing your position when you mix that with the power advantage you have.

As the person in power, you can simply not engage if one of your advisees crosses a boundary. Speak to HR for advice before a conversation.

And if you are the HR rep, or chairperson, or dean, who is handed the problem, face it as you would face a charge of racism. There are various cultural reasons why someone might be sensitized to even a look from a supervisor: there are certainly embedded cultural reasons why some folks will not believe it matters. Even small happenings deserve your input- and don’t let someone’s Nobel Prize get in the way of having a difficult conversation.

Update: A Buzzfeed article reported on a letter to Science and AAAS, written by Aradhna Tripoli and Jennifer Glass, and signed by 600 academics. The letter detailed 4 issues with Science: Huang’s column, above; a Science cover and its implied assumptions of HIV transmission among transgendered people, prostitutes, and people of color; ScienceCareer editor Jim Austin’s dismissive tweet about scientists upset about the Science cover, and an article by a scientist at the University of Toronto and his casual mention that he did well because his wife assumed domestic duties.









Stop researching: We know what works for healthcare.



“Research ethics and health care reform”, a stunning letter written by James Kahn, a professor in Health Policy and Epidemiology University of California, and Paul Hofmann, president of the Hofmann Health Group with a Ph.D. in Public Health, was published in the June 19th issue of Science.

Bottom line of the letter- it is unethical to research and write on partial fixes to the multi-payer system of health care in the USA when we already have plenty of compelling evidence that single payer health care systems improve patient outcomes, serve more people, and do it more economically than multi-payer systems.

Kahn and Hofmann wrote the letter in response to a Policy Forum essay by Amy Finkelstein and Sarah Taubman published in Science in February, 2015. “Randomize evaluations to improve health care delivery” made the point that too few randomized control trials for U.S. health care reform research means there is not enough solid research to base policy on. Kahn and Hofmann do not disagree with this, but say it is a secondary problem to a “major ethical breach.”

The ethical breach defined by Kahn and Hofmann is based on the “principle of equipoise,” which says that deviations from the standard of care are allowable in research with humans only if there is real uncertainty about which intervention is better. Because there is enough research to conclude that single payer healthcare works better, further experiments and trials to define the better system are unethical.

“To ignore this compelling evidence risks lives in the United States as we experiment with partial fixes to the multi-payer system. This experimentation would be rejected by any responsible university institutional review board as violating the principle of equipoise and causing unacceptable patient harm.”

Strong words- and hopefully, they will be spoken by more scientists, physicians, researchers, and academics. The development of drugs and vaccines, research on surgeries and devices, basic work on cell physiology, applied genomics research to target individuals health problems, social and psychological health interventions- all are funneled in the USA through the health care system. And in this system, where money can purchase excellent care for some, while others must hold bake sales and run crowd sourcing campaigns on line to pay for medicine, not all people will benefit from your research.

Most people don’t go into medicine or research to impact only the lives of people who can afford good health insurance. Single payer health care will mean that more people can be served by your work.