Monday, October 27, 2008

Lists, Nobel Prize, Science Funding, Depression

Before: Regular jellyfish.

I'll start with the Nobel prize. In an article article aptly titled "Depression and then Nobel Prize", Tara Parker-Hope elaborates on depression as the major factor for Douglas C. Prasher leaving biomedical research. (Kenneth Chang wrote the original article published in the Times.) In addition to individual cause of Prasher leaving biomed research, there are larger structural issues too, mainly inadequate science research funding.

Prasher's relationship to this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry is that he was the first scientist to isolate the fluorescent protein gene from jellyfish. The Nobel was awarded to Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien for the technique of inserting this gene into other organisms to use as a marker. Prasher gave the gene to Chalfie when they were both working at Woods Hole and Prasher then left Woods Hole.

But reading the blog post and Chang's original article, it struck me that this attribution ignores larger structural problems with science research: lack of funding. Prasher's story through this lens would read something like this:
  • Applied for 5-year NIH grant to study fluorescent protein gene. Application denied.
  • Applied for 2-year American Cancer Society grant to study the same. Grant received. But it was less money than the NIH grant.
  • Quit job at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
  • Gets job at USDA. Quits job. Beginning of depression.
  • Gets job as NASA subcontractor. Position eliminated due to lack of funding.
  • Depression returns.
  • Gets job driving van for Toyota dealer.
I don't know what caused what: if depression lead to loss of interest in job or lack of research funding lead to depression. I don't know if maybe Prasher just wasn't a very good scientist and the other NIH grant applicants really were better than he was.

But depression seems to me only a part of the problem. I don't think this is sufficient evidence to make this an example of the American individualist psyche that blames failure (and glory) on individuals, but I'm tempted to make the generalization. I'm also tempted to turn this into a policy pitch for increased federal funding for science research. The bad news is that NIH funding has remained flat since about 2003 and flat funding is in essence decreased funding because of inflation.


I try to keep a short list of things I want to write about soon but I usually never get to write about most of these things because my (un)productivity is about one entry a week. I hope that now that I write these out, I'll feel like I have an obligation to write them.

This week I want to write about:
I read publications outside the NYTimes, I swear.



Mouse neurons. source
An image drawn with fluorescent bacteria colonies on an agar plate. source

1 comment:

Marci said...

yay i'm looking forward to reading what you have to say! it's not like i'm deciding what school i'm going to tomorrow, but it's the whole concept of it i guess.

also, if i were a scientist who never got funding i would be depressed too. i've been thinking about the collective unconscious a lot lately, and wondering how much depression and anxiety is biochemical and how much is due to messed up things going on in society.