Archive | policy

Trump is not the only bully in town! Who is the bully in your lab?

Trump is not the only bully in town.

Fullsizeoutput 776

The vulgarity of Donald Trump has outraged many in the USA. Thousands of women are planning to march tomorrow, January 21, the day after Inauguration Day: many are protesting today against sexism and racism. Everyone, including scientists, are tweeting and blogging about the way ahead.

(I have a bad case of deja vu, feeling that Bush was replaced with Trump as a target of partisan rage- and that policy runs second to personality politics.)

The next few years will likely be punctuated with protest, and hopefully, this protest will result in better policies in human rights throughout the country, and the world. But when we think of what we want to do, there are target areas we can clean up in our own institutions.

The last several years have been interesting ones in the public outing of overt sexism in the laboratory. Astronomer Geoff Marcy probably accrued the most national publicity, both because of his fame and the widespread and longterm range of his treatment of women. What became obvious was that Marcy’s actions were well known, and effectively supported, by other scientists for many years. Such sexism, such bullying, would not have been possible without this silent collaboration of bystander scientists and administrators.

Few are the departments that don’t have at least one bully, someone who abuses his or her power over someone with less power. It may the dean, the chairperson, head of the lab, or a member of faculty or staff who is know to make racist or sexist jokes, to be dismissive of some at meetings, to lie, to use lab and department members for his or her own glory, without giving credit. This goes on because people are quiet: they say nothing publicly, they wait for someone else to say something.

Call it out. Call it out at the time.

If you are the lab head, and don’t correct the behavior of a lab member at the time of a nasty statement, you are sending a bad, bad message. If it was done in public, correct it in public. Don’t ever let ugly behavior fester because you don’t want to hurt the perpetrator’s feelings, or cause embarrassment. Step up for the person who may not yet have the courage- or power- to speak up.

If you are dealing with one of the many narcissists in research, prepare for a nasty response. It may help to have allies, and a plan, when dealing with someone who will never think the rules apply to him, and who might mount a campaign against you. In this case, it may help to approach someone else to find an effective way to deal with the person. Don’t be surprised if leadership tries to protect a successful researcher, no matter how nasty the behavior is: you might have to approach HR, or the press, to help deal the situation. It can take a while to dislodge a person with power, and you must know what price you are willing to pay. Note: don’t be the guy who pops up 10 years later and says, oh, dear, I had to protect myself.

Try to stand up for people who aren’t even “your” folks, even outside the lab. Stay safe, be firm.

Trump is not responsible for the racism and sexism and militarism of the USA. Before taking office, he is being blamed for many, many heartbreaking actions, while the present administration is being treated as heroes. An excellent article by Thomas Harrington  describes the current obliviousness to the war crimes and domestic crimes that have been part of politics the last few years. American culture is violent, and the political acceptance of war, mass incarcerations, lack of health care signifie a nation run by bullies, as described in Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society.



Can a Katze “situation” happen to you? If bullying is tolerated, yes.

Image 1

Can a Katze “situation” happen to you? Of course it can.

The story of Michael Katze, of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, is the latest in this year’s series of nasty academic sexual harassment and bystander inaction tales. Buzzfeed broke the story with copies of texts and other lurid details and Geekwire followed suit. 


As for the other stories of sexual harrassment by renowned male science faculty members, the details were shocking but folks at the involved universities were not surprised. Many people knew something. For months,some university members knew everything.


A UW statement on its investigation was very self-protective:

“When the sexual harassment complaints were made, Dr. Katze was removed from his lab and put on home assignment. A thorough investigation was commenced through UCIRO, the University’s complaint, investigation and resolution office. The investigation found that Dr. Katze had violated University sexual harassment policies.

“His conduct was inappropriate and not in any way reflective of the University’s values. This is why the matter is now in the faculty disciplinary process, through which an appropriate outcome will be adjudicated.” — Norm Arkans, UW spokesman and associate vice president for media relations and communications    


So which conduct was inappropriate? Calling people Negroes, fucking bitches, or cunts didn’t lose Katze his job. Sexual harassment, porn, bullying, alcohol, with an embezzlement investigation done back in 2007 didn’t really seem to matter in view of the 30 million dollars Katze brought in federal grants. Indeed, one theory discussed in the Katze fallout, suggests those considered especially intelligent are beyond reproach, even if bullying, embezzlement, and sexual harassment are known to be the other side of the so-called genius. (Genius= brings in grant money). Such a short time ago, UW raved about their wonderboy: for example, see the posting 26 faculty listed among the most influential scientific minds put out by UW news. It took outside exposure to daylight Katze’s escapades, and as of July 2, he hasn’t been fired yet.

If integrity, morality, and ethical behavior are not part of the framework of your self, your lab, or your department and institution, the chances that you will be pulled into the sphere of complicity with a Katze are high. Sexual harassment in the Katze lab was just one of the vile manifestations of entitlement and exceptionalism that protects those who treat their people badly.

Unfortunately, many universities and other workplaces consider ethical behavior to be the absence of research fraud. When it comes to protecting people, those who bring in the most money are first. There is absolutely nothing ethical about the way most universities are run.

Is your dean trustworthy? Does he or she keep promises made to new faculty- or not? This is extremely relevant at the Univeristy of Washington. 

Does your department have a code of ethics concerning treatment of personnel by administrators, superiors, or peers?

Does it make clear what happens if that code is broken? Is there a complaint process for faculty, students, technicians, and support staff?

Does the department protect faculty at the expense of others? Do non-faculty members feel heard?

Do faculty members believe they have more rights than any other members? Are exceptions often made for them?

Are the Human Resources personnel empowered to act if they hear of improper behavior or treatment?

Are rules about racism or sexism taken seriously? How about safety?

If most of the students and postdocs in a lab are unhappy or complain about the P.I., does anyone try to get to the bottom of the problem?

As a P.I.

Do you make clear that ethics are important in the lab, and explain what this means?

Do you correct people who make racist or sexist comments?

Do you listen when someone is worried or angry about the behavior of another person in the lab? Do you get involved?

Are you able to consider that problems in the lab might originate from your own behavior or actions?

Do you have your own process for mediating conflict?

Would you try to help someone in your lab whose personal life is affecting his work life?

Are you on time for meetings with your students, as you might expect them to be?

Would you sacrifice your students or postdocs in authorship disputes to advance your own career?

Students and postdocs

Do you know where to go for a medical or psychological emergency?


Do you feel your P.I. is an active advocate for your career?

Does the P.I. routinely evaluate your scientific, experimental, intellectual, communication, and lab citizen skills and give you advice in a way you can use to become a better scientist?

Does the P.I. have integrity? Do you trust her? Do you think you could have honest conversations without retaliation?

Does the P.I. make racist or sexist comments, or does he correct others that do? 

Have you ever encountered derision, mocking, “humor,” or nasty comments directed at yourself or anyone else? Did you feel free to speak up?

Where bullying runs unchecked, and people fear retaliation, the creation of a Katze is horribly likely. If department members or administrators do not follow the basic human kindness of protecting the weak, if bullying and favoritism are rampant, don’t just stand by, or you are complicit.  The loss of your job is minute compared to the loss of your self respect.



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

Academic scientists: Not in my backyard!

Union copy

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.

Aspeers copy

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.


Do the scientific data on fracking damage matter to policy makers? Sometimes!

Do the scientific data on fracking damage matter to policy makers?


Discussion on the health and environmental damage of fracking, initiated by scientists, journalists, and activists, is moving fast. Will it matter? It did in New York state, where scientists and activists working together convinced the governor to ban fracking. Scientists have not yet been as effective in Oklahoma in getting the message out about the dangers of fracking, and fracking continues although it has been linked to recent earthquakes. (See update at the end of this post.)

You wouldn’t think fracking was a problem from today’s New York Times. Energy and business correspondent Clifford Krauss’s article, “New Balance of Power,” gives cursory mention of the environment in his fracking-happy discussion.

The US is now responsible for 10% of global production of oil, and oil from the fracking of US shale fields since 2008 accounts for roughly half of the world’s oil production growth. The US is overtaking the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in oil production, weakening OPEC’s control (the goal of most US energy businesses and politicians) of the price of oil. But rather than reduce oil outout to keep demand (and price) high, OPEC has maintain production in order to retain market share- and the price of oil and gas has plummeted. Krauss sees the marginalization of OPEC and the lowered oil and gas prices as excellent outcomes. He also seems quite delighted that oil-producing “foreign foes” like Venezuela and Russia have been weakened by the drop in oil prices.

What about the environment?

Oh, well, there is some distant discussion of the environment. Krauss mentions that environmentalists believe the low oil and gas prices will drive consumption up. He says that “President Obama has applauded the drop in gasoline prices, but he still straddles the interests of environmentalists with those of the oil companies when it comes to hot-button issues like offshore drilling and expanding exports of United States oil and natural gas.”

And Krauss does say that hydraulic fracking is “still considered risky by many environmentalists because of the escape of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during exploration, production and transport, along with potential seepage of toxic fluids into water supplies.”

But this completely misrepresents the dangers of fracking. He writes off damage to people and to the fracking areas as an example of the “interests of environmentalists.”  He alludes to “potential” seepage of toxic fluids. He says nothing about the many scientific studies that have linked health and environmental damage to the technique of fracking. The article is an excellent description of what activists and scientists are facing when the health and environmental issues of oil and gas production are pitted against business and political issues.

Hydraulic fracking is the process of pumping large amounts of water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure into a well and surrounding rock formations to extract deep reserves of gas or oil. Its use increased in use in 2003, and more so after 2004 (when the FDA found that fracking did not harm underwater drinking water and 2005 (when fracking was exempted from the Safe Water Drinking Act by the Bush Administration).

It is a messy, dirty process, and problems just keep coming.

Problems such as earthquakes, fires, contaminated water, and radon generation. Problems scientists have been documenting for years.

Scientists from Johns Hopkins recently found that fracking may cause the release of radon. Uranium occurs naturally in soil and bedrock and decays to radium-226, which then decays to radon, an inert, odorless, and carcinogenic gas. It is the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer worldwide. Indoor radon levels in Pennsylvania were correlated with fracking, as well as with well water (and with weather and a rural versus a town location).

NBC news reported flammable tap water in homes located near fracking sites in Portage County, Ohio. The injection sites themselves are dirty and dangerous. A few days ago, a fracking waste-water injection site in Greeley, Colorado exploded in flames, not far from the site of an injection well that had been linked to earthquakes  in 2014. The stored oil and gas wastewater that is used for injection contained hydrocarbons that can vaporize and it is thought that a lightening strike caused the the explosion.  On and on, in scientific publications and on the media, the problems of fracking are described and decried.

But it is the earthquakes associated with fracking that perhaps have been best documented and are drawing the most attention from the scientific and environmental world.

In November, 2011, several earthquakes- including one of 5.7 magnitude- struck Prague, Oklahoma, destroying more than a dozen homes. The quakes were located near wells where fracking has been ongoing for 20 years.

The mainstream press  reported on studies showing that a 2011 earthquake in central Oklahoma was linked to fracking. One of these was a March, 2013  paper in Geology by scientists at the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and the United States Geological Study (USGA),  examined the  correlation between wastewater injection and the 5.7 magnitude earthquake.

A more recent article in the NY Times, online titled as “As Quakes Rattle Oklahoma, Fingers point to Oil and Gas Industry,” gives a bleak and excellent description of the interplay between scientists, citizens, the oil industry, and local politicians.

It mentions some to the earthquakes seen associated with fracking in other states, such as Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Kansas. Nowhere though, have the earthquakes approached the number and scope of Oklahoma’s, and scientists believe this is because Oklahoma’s main waster disposal site is a bed of porous limestone thousands of feet underground that lies close to the hard and stressed rock that contains faults. The soaked limestone expands and gets heavier, and impacts these faults directly or indirectly, by nearby pressure.

Scientists are speaking out in Oklahoma and elsewhere, but many are unable to hear or deal with the implications of the dangers of fracking. The oil and gas wells bring money to Oklahoma, to corporate owners but also royalties to farmers and landholders and taxes to the state. The oil and gas industry gives millions to Oklahoma universities, a situation that may be an incredible conflict of interest for academic scientists and administrators. Another conflict of interest is that the oil and gas industries are major political contributors to Oklahoma legislators, and to all three elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees many regulatory aspects of fracking. It is estimated that 1 out of 5 jobs in Oklahoma are dependent on the oil and gas industry. It is not a good atmosphere in which to examine and act on data.

Thumb aafracking quote copy 1024

Governor Mary Fallin has named a council to “exchange information” about the tremors.

Activists have been working in Oklahoma to point out the dangers of fracking, but Oklahoma law enforcement has come down hard. In a widely publicized case, activists protested fracking at Devon Energy headquarters in Oklahoma City, and two were charged for enacting a terrorism hoax after hanging two banners with glitter (That’s right! Could have been bioterrorism!) and two were arrested for trespassing.

The state of New York is listening a bit better.

New York state and Governor Cuomo’s administrations’s decision to ban fracking at the end of 2014 are a blueprint for scientists and activists to modify for their own towns and areas. New York was the first state with significant natural gas resources to ban fracking.

New York state under Governor Paterson had a virtual ban on fracking for 6 years while the state studied the health effects of fracking that were being brought up again and again. But communities, worried the state would give in to pressure from energy companies, used zoning laws to ban fracking: this was upheld by the Court of appeals in June, 2014.

When the decision to ban fracking was announced, Dr. Howard A Zucker, the acting state health commissioner, not only said his department had found insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the safety of fracking (itself an unusual decision in a business in which health dangers have to be proven before a ban would be issued), but that he would not want his family to live in a community in which fracking was taking place. His words as a scientist and a community member were quoted widely.

But none of the science would have been acted upon without the many members of activist groups who have been researching, educating, and protesting for the past 6 years. Some see this as a bad thing, a dilution of the science. For example, as described in “Fracking Movement Wins as NY Bans Fracking  in Popular Resistance, Tom Wilber, who writes Shell Gas Review  said, “Science is part of the calculus. But despite what Cuomo would like us to believe, scientists don’t make these kind of decisions. The full equation is Science + politics + policy. Cuomo finally got tired of being hounded on the issue by his political base. The movement in New York against shale gas was relentless and it was focused on him.”

Ecologist and activist Sandra Steingraber, speaking at a victory party after the inauguration of Governor Cuomo talked of the synergy between scientists and activists that was so effective. She described the 400+ peer reviewed scientific articles that documented the danger of fracking, and the citizen activism that brought the data to the public.

“First, you issued invitations to scientists to come into your communities—into your church basements, town halls, middle school gymnasiums, chambers of commerce, and Rotary Clubs. Thus, for a couple years running, some of us PhDs and MDs spent a lot of Friday nights and Sunday afternoons in one small town or another in upstate New York, giving Powerpoint presentations and laying out the data for audiences of common folks and town board members.

“Every church and town hall became a seminar. This cadre of traveling scientists and health professionals included Tony Ingraffea, Bob Howarth, Adam Law, Bill Podulka, Larysa Dyrszka, Kathy Nolan, Mary Menapace, Sheila Buskin, and Yuri Gorby, among many others.

The second way science was disseminated to and by the people was through the public comment process. Do you recall the 30 Days of Fracking “Regs? Remember those days? A few of us laid out the science like a trail of breadcrumbs, and you all followed. In these and other ways, we sent 204,000 well-informed, scientifically grounded comments to Albany. They spoke very loudly.

“Science alone is just a lot of black dots on white mathematical space. Like a musical score that sits on a shelf, it doesn’t become a song until someone picks up the score and sings it. And you sang it! You informed your friends and neighbors about the science and so pushed the needle on public opinion. You changed providence itself.”

Other states are trying to emulate the successful model of the New York State fracking ban. The model must be modified for each state- New York, for example, may not have the shale reserves of other states such as Oklahoma, and resistance by those who profit by the oil and gas industry might be more difficult in more oil-rich states. But it is a useful and inspiring model for scientist citizens.

A list of worldwide bans against fracking, as well as activist tools, can be found at “Keep Tap Water Safe.”  Not all countries are as hesitant as the US in acting on the dangers of fracking. France and Bulgaria have banned it,  as have Wales and Scotland , and Germany has signed off on a draft law to do so .

Of course, the bottom line is that fracking and conventional extraction methods must be sharply minimized, even if they weren’t immediate dangers. British scientists Christophe McGlade and Paul Elkins recently published paper in Nature early this year that strongly suggested that 1/3 of the world’s oil reserves, and half of its gas reserves (as well as over 80% of the coal) must be left in the ground until 2050 to prevent greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting earth warming of 2 degrees Celsius.

It is vital that scientists who either investigate fracking, see the dangers of it through other’s data, or take part in citizen activism, do not accept the judgement of those who deem activism to be contrary to science. Scientists working as citizens with activists are powerful- and that is why criticism is so passionate.

Kathy Barker

April 23, 2015


Update April 24, 2015

Yesterday, the USGA released its first comprehensive analysis of the link between oil and gas operations and thousands of earthquakes in the U.S. ( ). 17 areas were identified in 9 states, and Oklahoma was determined to be the hardest hit. Interestingly, though fracking itself garners most of the press, it is the injection of water to dispose of the waste from drilling or production that is the greatest contributor to earthquakes.

2 days before the report was released to the public, the Oklahoma state government acknowledged the scientific data saying that wastewater disposal linked to oil and gas drilling was to blame for the hundreds-fold (!) increase in earthquakes there.

Update May 5, 2015

An analysis of drinking water from 3 homes in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, found  organic compounds used in shale gas development in wells. The PNAS paper, “Evaluating a groundwater supply contamination incident attributed to Marcellus Shale gas development,” was published on May 4 by scientists from Penn State University, the Leco Corporation, and the Appalachia Hydrogeologic and Environmental Consulting, and used instrumentation not commonly available in commercial labs. This was not an anti-fracking paper: authors suggested that better analysis and management could prevent contamination of aquifers.







Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, research subjects, and lack of universal health care in the USA.


The headline: “Research Partnership Will Seek Human Subjects for Cancer Work.” (Hartocollis, Anemone, The New York Times, Friday, April 3, 2015, p A16-17.)

The happy content: The basic researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island are collaborating with North Shore-L.I.J. to access human subjects. What’s not to like?

It is hard to say why this is a news article, as there are already many medical centers that combine basic and clinical research, including Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan. As the article points out, this is exciting especially for the CSHL scientists who are excited to be involved in work that is closer to achieving an actual cure in patients, and to be dealing with patients who are not necessarily white and affluent.

But perhaps it is that the patients are not affluent (translation- may not have health insurance) that this supposedly exciting news is disturbing. And the following sentence from the article says it all:

“Although the researchers will not know the identities of the patients who have given tissue samples, if a breakthrough discovery were made, it would be possible to retrace the identity of the donor and perhaps apply the new knowledge to that person’s treatment.”

This is not good enough. “Perhaps” is not good enough.

People donate their time and their health for the idea of cures, and generally will not receive any personal return. Altruism and wanting to make a difference are wonderful traits, and don’t need a reward. But this is happening in a system in which industries and personal fortunes and jobs are build on the basis of clinical trials, and in which many people do not have good health care. Really, do we want to make the most vulnerable- those sick and without the funds to explore experimental treatments- the only folks in the system who will see no benefit for their sacrifice?

Having a universal health care system where all folks receive health care is the start to ensuring all people will see the benefits of research. Patient information, which is now bought and sold and protected and hoarded as its analysis can potentially yield more insights than experimental manipulation, might also be more readily contributed if everyone had access to emergent treatments.




Scientists for Global Responsibility- YES!

Scientists for global responsibility

How could one not be thrilled to find (via a message from activist and friend Linda Jansen) to find the UK- based group Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), whose priorities are so relevant to the needs of world citizens, and so on target with the protests going on all over the earth?

Here is a list of project categories from the website:

Corporate Influence on Science and Technology

Military Influence on Science and Technology

Nuclear Weapons Threat

Ethical Careers

Other projects- Population, Climate, Peace, etc.

What’s not to love?

There are currently about 900 members in SGR, and though the organization is UK centered, international members are welcome, according to Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director since 2003. Parkinson earned his bachelors’ degree in physics and engineering, but so many applications were military, with deep ethical implications, and he did his PhD work in climate change modeling. Even here there were ethical problems for Parkinson, as much funding for environmental work was from corporations, and their need to turn a profit was in conflict with preservation of the environment. SGR was a place where he could discuss these ethical issues with other scientists, something that unfortunately doesn’t occur in most scientific workplaces or training grounds.

To demonstrate the various pathways a scientist could choose to imbue life and work with ethical integrity, SGR put out a booklet, “Critical Paths: 12 inspiring cases of ethical careers in science and technology.”  The booklet can be downloaded as a pdf, or purchased as hard copy. Below is the list of scientists in the booklet, which the varied issues they’ve embedded in their life’s work. It would be great to have this booklet distributed in undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate programs, to be used for inspiration and discussion of options.

Critical paths


Introduction …………………………………………………………………………………………….. 3

Elizabeth Martin………………………………………………………………………………………. 4

Discipline: geography
Issues: sustainable development; politics; corporations

Annie Brown……………………………………………………………………………………………. 6

Disciplines: mechanical and civil engineering
Issues: sustainable building; sustainable energy; corporations

Laurence Kenney …………………………………………………………………………………….. 8

Disciplines: mechanical engineering; biology Issues: the military; health

Dave Harper ……………………………………………………………………………………………. 10

Discipline: psychology
Issues: mental health; social justice; the military

Emily Heath …………………………………………………………………………………………….. 12

Disciplines: environmental and geo-sciences
Issues: environmental protection; politics; social justice

Caroline Smith…………………………………………………………………………………………. 14

Disciplines: chemistry; plant biology Issue: sustainable agriculture

Yacob Mulugetta……………………………………………………………………………………… 16

Disciplines: environmental sciences; environmental management Issues: international development; sustainable energy; corporations

Birgit Völlm ……………………………………………………………………………………………… 18

Discipline: medicine
Issues: animal experiments; health

Karl Brazier……………………………………………………………………………………………… 20

Disciplines: mathematics; IT; physics
Issues: the military; sustainable energy; social justice; corporations

Steve Dealler …………………………………………………………………………………………… 22

Discipline: microbiology Issues: food safety; politics

Wendy Maria Phelps………………………………………………………………………………… 24

Discipline: electrical engineering
Issues: the military; sustainable energy; social justice

Sue Mayer……………………………………………………………………………………………….. 26

Disciplines: biological and veterinary sciences Issues: the military; genetics; politics 










GMO labeled food, AAAS, Big corporations, and Citizens United

final gmox

“Two States Reject GMO Labeling. Voters in two U.S. states rejected referenda that would have made it mandatory to label genetically modified foods. Measure 92 was narrowly defeated by Oregon voters, while Colorado’s Proposition 105  was rejected by roughly two thirds of voters.”  This is what the 11/12/14 AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Policy Alert newsletter.  That’s it. 

We know AAAS does not believe GMO foods should be labeled. (See “Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods “, October 20, 2012.) Their reason is that GMO foods are safe, that FDA policy says labeling is only required if the absence of the information poses a special health or environmental risk, and that is that.

But his issue is not just about risk, and it is disingenuous of AAAS to pretend it is all risk and science. This is a political and ideological issue, and the AAAS’ political and idealogical statement puts in squarely in the camp with Big Food Companies.

The 2010 Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited funds in elections. The effect of this on spending can be seen in the chart, below, in a January 2014 article  in the Washington Post. City and state campaigns are targets of out-of-state organizations and individuals seeking to influence the vote. 

Untitledelection funding

And so food companies, worried that shoppers won’t buy GMO products, pour money into state campaigns seeking to avoid labeling of GMO foods.

In the Colorado measure, the Right to Know campaign raised less than $500,000 dollars, and had no TV or radio ads to promote the Proposition 105 campaign. Monsanto  gave more than 4.7 million dollars itself, and Pepsico and Coco-Cola and other food companies gave a total of 1.9 million. 

In Oregon, the Yes on 92 campaign argued that the public has a right to know whether food contains genetically engineered ingredients, and raised 9 million dollars. The No on 92 Coalition raised 20 million dollars with almost 6 million dollars contributed from Monsanto alone.

AAAS, you’d have a lot more credence with people if you would separate the questionable business and unethical actions of companies such as Monsanto from the science when making a statement. The murky pools of vested interests already obscure what the science is. Make clear the science – but also make clear you do not endorse the machinations of large food companies in influencing elections to maintain profits. It would also help the credibility of AAAS and scientists, in general, to address the known health risks of herbicide overuse caused by plants engineered for herbicide resistance. 














World Science Day for Peace and Development is November 10

Peace day

Today, November 10, is World Science Day for Peace and Development!   What a great idea, United Nations!

After World War II, the United Nation adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 27, the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, was declared to be one of those rights.

The 1999 World Conference on Science: Science for the for the Twenty-First Century was held in Budapest and committed itself to using science to benefit mankind. Since then, UNESCO (The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has affirmed that commitment to the role of science in bringing peace and safety to all on November 10 every year. In 2000, and in a  follow-up report in 2002, UNESCO has detailed what the issues are, and how peace and development can be furthered by science.

But why did the UN hedge on its description of peace? Can we meaningfully talk about quality of life for all people, the effects of climate change and poverty, the unforeseen effects, good and bad of technology to happiness of mankind- and not mention the effects of militarization and war? This is especial bizarre because of the role of science and technology in building and selling the weapons of war.

The main report put out by the 1999 conference is the “Declaration of Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge.”   The report itself acknowledges war, but doesnt come out to say that scientists could work towards ending it.

The Introduction  tiptoes around the issue of war:

“However, scientific and technological progress has also made possible the construction of sophisticated arms that have the potential to destroy life on the entire planet.” And so? There is no response in the report to its own statement.

The Introduction does quote Einstein. “Military applications of science have been of enormous consequence. Therefore, scientists can no longer claim today that their work has nothing to do with social issues. It is interesting to recall the plea made by Albert Einstein back in 1931: ‘concern for humankind itself and its fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours. . . . Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations’.”  But then, this quote hangs alone, with no connection to the rest of the Introduction.

The follow-up report in 2002  “Harnessing science to society,” makes NO mention of the effects of war and the incompatibility of war with peace.

There is more overt mention in the earlier (1988) resolutions adopted on the reports of the Special Political Committee of the General Assembly:

“43/61. Science and peace

The General Assembly,

Considering also the political and economic decisions have a decisive effect on the direction of scientific research and the use of the results obtained thereby,

Recalling that scientific and technological achievements must be used to advance socio-economic progress and the effective enjoyment of human rights throughout the world,

Considering further that the arms race absorbs a substantial proportion of the scientific talent and financial resources used in related research and development, which, in a more peaceful and secure world, could be used to solve other pressing problems facing mankind…”

But even this needs to be stronger. Neither scientists or politicians should be shy about being absolutely overt about the need to prevent war, and the political and scientific will that will be needed to do this.

It would help to have our leading organizations and journals and professional groups spell it out- we will not have peace without war, and scientists can help bring that peace.




Running for office as scientist and socialist


“My name is Jess Spear.

I am a member of Socialist Alternative.

I am a climate scientist.

And I was the organizing director for 15Now.”

So Jess Spear, who is running for the Washington State Legislature, began her debate on October 7 with the mainstream Democratic and  20 year incumbent, Frank Chopp.

15Now was a successful charter amendment for a $15.00 minimum wage in Seattle, a success that is galvanizing similar initiatives all over the country. For, although she is a scientist, environmental and economic justice are her motivations, and science is a tool to address that activism.

Not that Spear doesn’t love science- but from the beginning, she saw the problems science could address. She was first inspired by Carl Sagan as a teenager to want to do something about climate change, way before it became a common concept. Thrilled by a biology class, Spear switched from anthropology to biology, and applied to work on a climate change problems for her senior year project- only to be told by her project advisor that climate change wasn’t a surety. As a student, Spear listened and worked on red tide- but a belief that authority, scientific or political, was necessarily correct did not take, and she found her way back to climate change as soon as possible.

It was not an end to her disappointment with scientists. Not with her mentor: while not as activist as Spear, he was civic-minded and involved and supportive of Spear. But her fellow students, even those working on climate change, were not engaged beyond their own work. Graduate students often have a laser focus only on their areas of study, but Spear thinks, sadly, that it was cynicism about the future that prevented students from working with the bigger picture.

Few senior climate scientists were speaking out, as speaking publicly led to questions about the scientists’ integrity and objectivity. Then, perhaps more than now, scientists in general were schooled to believe that their role is not to be part of policy, but only to provide the data for the policy, seeming to still believe that the research they are doing isn’t already influenced and caused by policy. Michael Mann and Jim Hanson have strongly acted and spoken out, and have written about the need for scientists to speak out, and public involvement is no longer completely damning.

Spear’s personal discontent with the approach to climate change and injustice took a big change in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, public protest in Wisconsin against the budget and restrictions on collective bargaining, and the Occupy Movement. Though Occupy! Seattle, she heard speakers from Socialist Alternative, with whom she then learned the links between climate change and the economic system.

Science and research are integrated into economics, but are generally seen only through the lens of capitalism in US training. Spear recommends that scientists read Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) by John Bellamy Foster, who has written several books integrating ecology and economics, and who warns readers about the ineffectiveness of spiritual approaches to saving the environment. Frederick Engel’s The Dialectics of Nature, written in 1883  and published in 1939 with a forward by evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, analyzes the revolutions of science and their parallels with revolutions in society, a larger perspective useful for the scientist and activist.

Socialism provides the philosophical and practical links between science and environmental activism, and economics and social policy. For example, while many scientists and organizations agree that we must decrease reliance on fossil fuels to limit climate change, socialists are also concerned with the resulting human needs and in finding job alternatives for those in industries that might be abolished though activism or government regulation. A major mistake of environmentalists, believes Spear, is that they are coming head to head against ordinary working people. Socialism and Marxism have been very helpful to her in framing the issues, in putting problems in a social context, and have made her more more effective on a range of environmental issues.  Spear says, “I now understand how ludicrous it was for me to rail against individuals for their lifestyle choices. People shouldn’t be asked to choose the environment over their families.”

As a member of Socialist Alternative, Spears is not working as an individual, but as the member of a collective. Decisions about policy and actions are made collaboratively. There is a non-hierarchical perspective. This may be difficult for the scientists who believe in themselves purely as individuals to understand. But even with the inspiration of individuals, it is the power of an organization that creates social change.

After 2011, Spear spent more time on political campaigns, working first on the successful Seattle City Council election campaign of Kshama Sawant before leading the also successful 15Now minimum wage campaign. When she and Socialist Alternative decided that it made sense for her to run for Legislative office in 2014, she left behind for now her career as an oceanographer to focus on the election. She marches for political and environmental causes, has been arrested for stopping oil trains going through Seattle, gives interviews and talks, and leads a very different life, for now.

One of the biggest challenges for Spear has been learning a different way of public speaking than she had been trained in as a scientist. There was no effective formula for a political speech. It was usually not possible to use notes or other aids. Instead, Spear had to learn to make herself vulnerable, to listen and respond to the crowd, to improvise. Having let go of the notion of control that is drilled into science, she feels much better when giving a speech.

The election is November 4. Even without the corporate money poured into the campaign of the incumbent, Spear made a good showing in the primary, and well may win this election…if not this one, then the next. People may be shy about socialism, but are understanding that business-as-usual will not solve anything. As a person, scientist, and politician, Spear gives enormous hope that we have the capability to overcome fear and lassitude and make a better world.

The photograph used for the illustration found at the Vote Spear! website.


Mission matters: DARPA’s inclusion in the BRAIN initiative is downright creepy.



On April 2, 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative (BRAIN is actually an an acronym for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies- too cute),  a 100 million dollar investment (later increased) by 10 groups, with the 3 main US government groups being NSF, NIH, and DARPA. DARPA would be responsible for 50 million of the 100 million to be invested. Private sector partners, such as The Allen Institute for Brain Research, HHMI, Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, are also involved.

DARPA? That acronym stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research wing of the Department of Defense. This is their mission: Creating breakthrough technologies for national security. As it says on the DARPA website, you can read “Better Understanding of Human Brain Supports National Security: DARPA plans $50 million in 2014 investments to increase understanding of brain function and create new capabilities.”

New capabilities for what? It is pretty clear from DAPRA’s past exploits and present plans that its mission contradicts the mission of most

Xxxdarpa mission









scientific organizations- to do good science for mankind. Not for some, who happen to be americans. Not for war to protect US “interests.”

Jonathan Moreno has examined this intersection of neuroscience and DARPA in his 2006 book, Brain Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, and the 2012 update, Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century.

419SOtCPKoL BO2 204 203 200 PIsitb sticker v3 big TopRight 0 55 SX278 SY278 PIkin4 BottomRight 1 22 AA300 SH20 OU01









It is well worth reading for all scientists, but should be mandatory for neuroscientists, and certainly for the ones involved in this initiative. Moreno gives lists of DARPA research proposals that read like the CIA want ads. Brain control? Better warriors who can stay awake and fight without pain? Reading the minds of your enemy? Technology to predict the behavior of individuals and groups?  I don’t agree with Moreno’s pragmatic conclusion- that basic scientists and the military should work together in order to maintain openness and restrict the possible dastardly applications of DARPA’s brain research. I don’t agree that the trickle down benefits- that is, innovation for the public that may merge from a DARPA-funded discovery- are worth it. But Moreno does point out the ethical dangers of this kind of work, and encourages scientists to consider the end result of their research.

Nature Magazine blog reporter Vivien Marx, and the response of attendees at the 2013 Society for Neuroscience in San Diego to DARPA’s inclusion in the BRAIN initiative show a rather scary pragmatism. In an article reporting on a town hall meeting at the Neuroscience meeting, “Brain initiatives galore, smiles aplenty,” Marx describes with enthusiasm the different funding model of DARPA (DARPA uses contracts rather than grants, allowing it to be more nimble), and seems fine with quoting Colonel Geoffrey Ling of DARPA in saying, “Yes, we build guns and bombs, that is true.” Perhaps there was more disagreement with DARPA at the meeting than indicated.

But why would scientists think it is okay to be partners with an agency whose mission is contrary to peace and health?

Why is it okay for basic research funds to be channeled through DARPA instead of through NSF or NIH? Why on earth should the Department of Defense be dictating what research is done?

DARPA says it is committed to sharing results- does anyone really think that is going to happen?

People seem to be most enthusiastic about DARPA’s intent to “develop solutions to prevent, treat, or even reverse the harmful effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Traumatic Brain Injury in returning war veterans.” Ah, remember tobacco companies and their interest in health issues? Stop making cigarettes. Stop sending kids to wars. PTSD cannot be cured: it is a physiological response to trauma, and the trauma of killing is overwhelming.

Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University in a recent NY Times  op-ed, pointed out that there is little discussion of what we will/should do with the information collected from the BRAIN initiative. Yes, we hope results will go towards understanding the brain and helping those with mental illness and brain injury. Yes, it is complicated. But perhaps one of the reasons is that DARPA’s mission wouldn’t fit well in with what most people want from an initiative this expansive and expensive. Telling the public that their money will be put to the Department of Defense’s mind control experiments might not be as happily accepted as it is by the scientists who are part of the initiative.

The potential to understand ourselves better, to prevent and heal mental illness and brain injury for all people, is immense. The Department of Defense and DARPA do not belong in the BRAIN initiative.

Readings about DARPA and the brain-

John Horgan May 22, 2013. Crosscheck (Scientific American blog)   Why you should care about Pentagon funding of Obama’s BRAIN initiative.

Peter Freed, M.D. April 3, 2013. Eisenhower’s ghost and Obama’s brain.  Neuroself.

Peter Freed, M.D.  May 23, 2013.  Neuroself.   DARPA follow up: Where the scientific-military-industrial complex is headed.