The Government Shutdown Is Killing Antarctic Science

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on October 9th, 2013.
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There’s been a lot of news lately about the unexpected side-effects of the government shutdown, but here’s one that hasn’t garnered the attention it deserves.

On Tuesday the National Science Foundation announced that given the lack of appropriated funds, the U.S. Antarctic research program would be cancelled for the rest of the year. While that may not seem so important at first glance, Antarctic research diver Henry Kaiser calls it —with dramatic rhetoric very much intended— “the 9/11 for the science community.”

“There’s never been a disaster like this in science before,” he said, explaining that people who are not scientists—including journalists and politicians—seem not to understand the catastrophic ramifications of the closure on scientific studies. “It’s truly unprecedented,” he said.

That’s largely because of the nature of scientific research in Antarctica, a unique and fragile natural laboratory. If scientists, including geologists, glaciologists, oceanographers, volcanologists and biologists, fail to gather their annual data, it has the effect of either negating or seriously compromising decades of work—and wasting hundreds of millions of research dollars along the way.

“Most climate studies work on trends, and having gaps in the data is detrimental to being able to interpret them properly,” said Ross Powell, a geologist at Northern Illinois University and chief scientist for the WISSARD project, the first drilling expedition to discover life in a buried Antarctic lake. This year, with a $10-million investment by the NSF, Powell and his colleagues planned to search for a hidden estuary beneath the Ross Ice Shelf. Powell says that losing this field season would mean already wasting half the money, not to mention the myriad hours of operational and planning time.

Marine Biologist Gretchen Hofmann, who studies the effects of changing seawater acidity and temperature on marine life, says that long term records are necessary “to understand what’s been happening in the recent past.”

“These conclusions rely on continuity, and some of these studies have been going on for well over twenty years,” she said.

Richard Jeong, a researcher currently based at McMurdo, the United States’ Antarctic science facility and the largest research community on the continent, has begun to circulate a Change.org petition, calling for a shutdown exemption for Antarctic Program. More than 2,000 individuals have signed it, but it may be too late. Unlike national parks, which could reopen on Monday if the government reopened tomorrow—the amount of time and logistical preparation required to prepare for the Antarctic research program makes the likelihood of rescuing this research season extremely unlikely.

Although the Antarctic summer research season began last week on October 3rd, staff from Lockheed Martin, the NSF’s Antarctic operations contractor, have been working since late August to prepare for the season’s studies. “It takes them weeks to set everything up. There’s a whole slew of safety concerns, holes to be drilled, research preparation,” said Hubert Staudigel, a senior research geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has been traveling to Antarctica for research every other year for the past ten years. “The problem with the Antarctic program is it’s like a machine with 100 cogs and you have to have every cog in place to make it work. It’s incredibly complex and it can’t just be stopped and started.”

And there’s safety considerations, too. “Would you want to deploy a group of mountaineers to the Antarctic knowing that you won’t have enough search and rescue people back at the station?” said Hofmann.

The National Science Foundation, which furloughed 99 percent of its workforce, has been unavailable to answer calls or provide real clarity on the situation.

The personal cost of the shutdown is also enormous for the staff, contractors and researchers. For example, two PhD students under Powell’s supervision who were set to go to Antarctica this month for thesis research may have to extend their study for an extra year, putting universities in precarious funding situations.

Lydia Kapsenberg, a PhD candidate at UCSB who was preparing to leave for Antarctica to continue an ongoing study on ocean acidification, says she and her team could expect to lose up to two years of data. “We’re looking at how changes in pH will affect animals and in order to do that we need to know what their current exposure is,” she said.

For now, it’s a waiting game, and people try and predict which types of studies can be saved, and which are simply ruined.

“Really awful things are happening as Congress recklessly and carelessly has their macho stare down,” said Hofmann.

Where are the STEM jobs?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on May 24, 2013. 
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Republicans and Democrats appear to agree on at least one thing: that the United States is facing a STEM (science, technology engineering and math) crisis. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that he wants to “reward schools” that focus on STEM classes, for they are “the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” And as far to the other end of the political spectrum as you can get, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas deemed May 6-12 to be the first ever “Celebration of STEM Education Week in Texas.”

I’m an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University — by all measures, a very STEM-oriented institution. I’m studying history and sociology, and it’s quite common for students like me to envy those with academic talents enabling them to major in fields like chemical engineering or neuroscience. Bleak job reports and doomsday rhetoric from our nation’s leaders reinforce this idea that maybe the remainder of us studying the liberal arts are somehow putting a drain on our society, and preventing the United States from “competing effectively” with other nations.

And yet, it turns out that the job prospects for my STEM-oriented classmates may not be so great either.

Recently, the Economic Policy Institute released a report that challenged conventional wisdom; the report says that over half of students with STEM degrees each year are unable to find STEM employment upon graduation. Additionally, STEM wages have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant wages and low rates of STEM job placement strongly indicate a surplus of STEM workers, not a dearth. The problem points to a lack of jobs, not of qualified workers.

Of course, science, technology, engineering and math are important fields, and we should aim to provide exemplary education for students interested in such subjects. But there is a danger in creating a false hope that if only we got everyone to switch from English to math, our economy would suddenly soar. Unemployment in the United States is at 7.5 percent, which is 3.2 points higher than the pre-recession low. The deep-seated unemployment in our country will require not only job training in STEM fields but also things like monetary and fiscal stimulus to boost employment during this rough period.

The alleged STEM crisis has also been a popular point of agreement among lawmakers and tech moguls as Congress struggles to draft an immigration reform bill. It’s been politically safe to say that we must carve an easy path for STEM foreign workers to come to our country in order to boost our global competitiveness — in fact, one of the few amendments accepted in the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration bill this week was a provision to increase the number of visas for such high-skill workers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently launched a new organization, called FWD.us, to bolster support for, among other things, an increase in the number of visas granted to foreign skilled workers.

However, Science Careers, a branch of Science magazine, reported that the bill would make already congested labor markets even more competitive with the influx of foreign workers. Additionally, STEM labor force expert Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who spoke in April at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding the proposed immigration legislation, adamantly refutes the notion that there is an overall STEM shortage in the United States. He argues that H1-B and other worker visa programs have lowered wages and allowed for more labor exploitation in domestic STEM markets.

The 844-page immigration bill would quadruple or quintuple the number of high-skill visas currently allowed in the United States. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Elizabeth Dwoskin writes, “If you’re a recent college graduate, a doctoral candidate, or a highly skilled professional who has been in the job market the past few years, you know it’s rough out there. But if the immigration overhaul proposed in the Senate … becomes law, it’s likely to get a lot rougher.”

The bill would be great for businesses like Mr. Zuckerberg’s that are looking to hire talented workers at lower prices. However, for American citizens graduating with STEM degrees and struggling to find employment today, it may not look so great.

Science, technology, engineering and math are important skills in the 21st century economy. But unfortunately, even they turn out to be no guarantee.

Common sense on Plan B.

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 9, 2013.

Last week, a federal district judge in New York ruled that girls younger than 17 should be allowed to purchase the Plan B contraceptive pill over the counter. Unlike the Obama administration, Judge Edward Korman got this one right. The 2011 decision by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to restrict access for younger girls not only denied them a safe and legal means to prevent unwanted pregnancy but ignored all scientific evidence that supported its access.

Emergency contraceptive pills, commonly known as “Plan B,” are drugs that work to prevent pregnancy if taken shortly after sexual intercourse. Plan B, which has been available by prescription since 1999, contains levonorgestrel, a synthetic version of the hormone progestin. Levonorgestrel has been used in birth control pills for more than 35 years; Plan B contains a higher dose and is taken as two separate doses 12 hours apart.

Given that teen pregnancy rates in the United States, while declining, are still high for an industrialized nation, the need for easier access to all forms of safe and effective contraception is great. And there is no question that Plan B is safe; aspirin is more dangerous and susceptible to misuse. For that reason, the Food and Drug Administration recommended in 2011 that Plan B be made available over the counter without a prescription.

Nonetheless, President Barack Obama defended Ms. Sebelius’ decision to reject the FDA recommendation, saying at the time that he believed the nation should exercise “common sense” when deciding what medicines to allow over the counter. White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated that line on Friday, again calling it a “common-sense approach.”

Common sense would be to make decisions based on reputable scientific research, as Mr. Obama had pledged to do during his first inaugural address, when he said he would “restore science to its rightful place” in policymaking. Instead, “common-sense” effectively means “compromise” with those whose real agenda is to erode access to contraception and those who mistakenly think Plan B has something to do with abortion.

Plan B is not an abortion pill, like RU-486, which must be administered in a doctor’s office. Instead, it prevents the fertilization of an egg, which is why it must be used within about 120 hours of intercourse. Nonetheless, Plan B has become a target of abortion-rights foes and those who think that increasing access to contraception somehow leads to promiscuity.

The Obama administration’s decision to reject the Food and Drug Administration’s advice on Plan B was a surprising one for a president who has otherwise done much good for the cause of women’s health care. Under the Affordable Care Act, women can now receive free birth control; they can get preventive services like mammograms, new baby care and well-child visits without co-pays; and there are greater crackdowns on discriminatory insurance premiums based on gender.

The only conceivable explanation for the president’s decision was that it was an attempt, amid a re-election campaign, to avoid fueling the trumped-up narrative that his efforts to extend contraception access amounted to a “war on religion.” Judge Korman called the ban “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified and contrary to agency precedent.” His decision was supported by scientists, experts, women’s reproductive health groups and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which had advised its members to issue blanket Plan B prescriptions to teen girls as a means to get around the Obama administration policy.

This ruling comes at a time when women’s reproductive rights are being put at risk in state houses across the country. North Dakota recently passed legislation to ban any abortion after six weeks, the strictest such measure in the nation. It trumped legislation passed in Arkansas earlier this year to ban abortions in the 12th week of pregnancy, and it is about to be leapfrogged by a Kansas bill that defines life as beginning at fertilization.

It is unclear yet whether the Obama administration will try to fight the Plan B ruling. Mr. Carney said in a news conference that the president’s opinion “has not changed.” But now, the president doesn’t even have the excuse of political expediency to justify his position. The science is clear, and so are the public health benefits of making Plan B widely available. The president should let this decision stand.