The #IceBucketChallenge, and iced-up budgets for scientific research [Updated]

Ice bucket screenshot

For science!

Well, it had to happen some time, I guess. A friend tagged me on Facebook in the “ice bucket challenge” to raise funds for the ALS Association. It’s gone massively viral: post a video of yourself getting soaked in ice water, donate to ALSA, and nominate more folks to do the same. So far, it’s raised more than $70 million, and it’s not slowing down yet.

My grandfather died of ALS, so I’m all in favor of funding research to find a cure. But as a working biologist, the idea of financing research in spurts of social media enthusiasm worries me a little. As Felix Salmon notes at Slate:

You need to fund scientists year in and year out; throwing a large grant at them in 2014 and then going away would probably end up causing more harm than good. As a result, most of this money will (and should) probably end up simply sitting on the ALS Association balance sheet, maybe earning some modest rate of interest, getting doled out very slowly over many years.

In terms of bang for the buck, then, giving money to the ALS Association is not much better than giving it to Harvard. Rather than being front-loaded and effective, it’s going to be back-loaded and (sadly, given the results of the $100 million that the ALS Association has spent to date) probably ineffective.

The real foundation of science in the U.S. is funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. And those agencies have had a rough decade.

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HOORAY for Basic Science Research! And duck genitalia

Basic science =  scientific questions that are founded in understanding theory, or the natural world around us

Applied science = scientific research that is directly applicable to humans. i.e. Cancer research

The last few years of financial crisis have seen a rise in criticism over basic scientific research. NPR does a great job of summarizing the criticisms and explaining why seeking to understand duck genitalia is a solid biological question.

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A guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance, part III: Has natural selection produced significant differences between races?

This is the third in a series of guest posts in which Chris Smith will examine the evolutionary claims made in Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. You can read part I here, and part II here. Chris is an Associate Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Willamette University. He uses population genetic approaches to understand coevolution of plants and insects, and he teaches the interdisciplinary course “Race, Racism, and Human Genetics” with Emily Drew.

A Troublesome Inheritance was published in 2014 by Penguin Books. Cover image via Google Books.

This spring former New York Times science writer, Nicholas Wade, released his latest book on human evolution, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. In it, Wade argues that genetic studies completed in the eleven years since the Human Genome Project was completed reveal real and important differences between human races. Unsurprisingly, the book’s release has been met with a sharply divided critical reception.Whereas the book has been widely embraced by those on the political right, and by the white identity movement, it has been panned by anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and population geneticists. For the last two weeks at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve been looking in depth at the literature that Wade uses to support his ideas. Last week I considered Wade’s argument that natural selection acting on the MAO-A gene – a neurotransmitter implicated in aggression and impulsivity – has led to behavioral differences between races. This week I will consider Wade’s larger claim that natural selection has produced numerous differences between races.

Throughout the book Wade continually repeats the mantra that natural selection on humans has been “recent, copious, and regional.” It would be hard to find an evolutionary biologist that would disagree with these rather vague pronouncements. Indeed, there are a multitude of studies showing that natural selection has acted on humans, and there is persuasive evidence that selection has caused evolutionary changes in human populations as we have adapted to diverse environments over the course of the last several thousand years (see, for example, Yi et al., 2010).

However, scratching the surface reveals that when he says that natural selection has been “recent, copious, and regional,” what Wade actually means is that natural selection has been “radical, complete, and racial.” By Wade’s account, natural selection has dramatically reshaped the human genome, producing major differences between races. This much more dramatic interpretation is entirely unsupported by the literature, however. In truth, Wade vastly overstates the portion of the human genome that shows evidence for natural selection, and where there has been recent natural selection acting on humans, its effect has primarily been to create genetic differences between members of the same race, and similarities between people of different races.

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A guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance, part II: Has natural selection favored violent behavior in some human populations?

This is the second in a series of guest posts in which Chris Smith will examine the evolutionary claims made in Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. You can read part I here. Chris is an Associate Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Willamette University. He uses population genetic approaches to understand coevolution of plants and insects, and he teaches the interdisciplinary course “Race, Racism, and Human Genetics” with Emily Drew.

A Troublesome Inheritance was published in 2014 by Penguin Books. Cover image via Google Books.

Last week at Nothing In Biology Makes Sense, I began critiquing Nick Wade’s latest book, A Troublesome Inheritance. The book has produced a firestorm of criticism, largely because it argues that evolution has produced significant cultural and behavior differences between races.

Wade makes many sweeping claims, among them: that natural selection has made the English inherently fiscally prudent and more likely to defer gratification by saving for tomorrow, that events early in the history of Judaism caused the Jews to evolve features predisposing them to careers in banking, and that genetic variation in certain neurochemicals has made Africans inherently more violent.

Wade hangs these seemingly bizarre conclusions on the mantle of modern population genetics, which he claims confirms the existence of ‘three primary races,’ that have evolved real and significant cultural differences between them. By heavily referencing the scientific literature, Wade manages, as Mike Eisen put it, to “give the ideas that he presents… the authority of science… What separates Wade’s theories – in his own mind – from those of a garden variety racist is that they are undergirded by genetics.”

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A guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance, part I: The genetics of human populations

This is the first in a series of guest posts in which Chris Smith will examine the evolutionary claims made in Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Chris is an Associate Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Willamette University. He uses population genetic approaches to understand coevolution of plants and insects, and he teaches the interdisciplinary course “Race, Racism, and Human Genetics” with Emily Drew.

A Troublesome Inheritance was published in 2014 by Penguin Books. Cover image via Google Books.

Last month the former New York Times writer Nicholas Wade released his latest book on human evolution, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History (2014, Penguin Press). In it, Wade argues that the genomic data amassed over the past ten years reveal real and meaningful biological differences between races, and that these differences explain much of the cultural and socioeconomic differences between people. If you haven’t read a newspaper or picked up a magazine in the last month, you may not have noticed that Wade’s book has—predictably—prompted intense and impassioned reaction from scientists, sociologists, and commentators from across the political spectrum. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Charles A. Murray, author of The Bell Curve, called Wade’s book, “A delight to read … [that] could be the textbook for a semester’s college course on human evolution.” On the other hand, Arthur Allen, in his review for the New York Times, predicts that many readers will find Wade’s book to be, “a rather unconvincing attempt to promote the science of racial difference.”

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Adjunctivitis

View from Kamiak Butte. Outside Moscow, ID.

View from Kamiak Butte. Outside Moscow, ID.

A lot of pixels have been spilled on the subject of the adjunct crisis in academia. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it refers to the explosive growth in the use of adjunct faculty to teach courses at colleges and universities in the United States. These faculty are hired on a course by course, semester by semester basis. They receive no benefits and don’t have a shred of job security. By some estimates an average “full-time” adjunct faculty member teaching 8 courses a year (3 each semester and 2 in the summer, perhaps?) would make less than $30,000 a year and it’s thought that adjunct faculty are now doing 70% of the teaching at higher education institutions in the US.

Much of the discussion of this issue has focused on the perceived fundamental unfairness of employing highly educated professionals in such an absurd fashion, or on the pyramid scheme-y aspects of graduate programs that chew up students and spit them into this cesspool of underemployment. In the comments sections of these pieces, there is an ever-present retort, presumably emanating from those free market-loving capitalists among us, that if adjunct faculty hate their plight so much, they should change career paths.

In response to this, I want to use a recent post at this blog to highlight a slightly less well covered aspect of the issue and the other side of that coin: when you offer shitty compensation, you might just get shitty employees.

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The gold-star creationist?

2010.02.15 - Life Sciences South

The Life Sciences building at the University of Idaho. Photo by jby.

Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education—part of the point of having classes taught by working scholars is that, at the university level, students should be exposed to the interplay of ideas at the cutting edge of each field of study, and so professors should have latitude to explore controversial topics and defend their own perspectives.

But there are limits to that principle. Common sense, and the need to organize prerequisites across a multi-year curriculum, dictates that even a tenured professor would get into trouble if she devoted her entire introductory chemistry course to a critical reading of The Lord of the Rings. In a (maybe) less extreme example, a professor who spent an astronomy class arguing that there is a scientific basis to the Zodiac would, at the very least, get a talking-to from his department chair. In order to meaningfully teach a given class, there are topics that need to be covered—and there is material that has no legitimate place in the syllabus.

This is why I was so surprised to learn, a few weeks ago, that the University of Idaho—the institution where I earned my Ph.D., where Noah earned his Master’s degree and Sarah earned both her B.S. and Master’s—has hired someone who believes that the Earth was created over the course of six days about six thousand years ago, to teach an introductory microbiology course.

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