So, this isn't a political blog. I want to stay as far out of politics as I possibly can...which is why I'm writing this. I want to stay out of politics, and I want politics to stay out of my career. It's not very often that the government DIRECTLY impacts your daily life. Normally it's more abstract, we pay our taxes and sometime down the line a new teacher gets hired at the local elementary school, or a road gets paved, or a research study gets funded. In my adult life, never before have the actions of slightly more than 300 people in Congress literally impacted my day-to-day. And I mean literally. For the past three weeks, I have literally been locked out of my USDA lab, along with hundreds of other researchers.
Sam Stein at the Huffington Post has done a tremendous job covering the impact of the government shutdown on science, and the further damage that will surely be done when sequestration and another potential February default are fully launched. He’s referred to the idea that “this may hurt future researchers” but I’m not sure even he understands how devastating the past year has been to those of us just starting out in the scientific fields.
I am a doctoral student. I study how nutrients mingle with muscle. Specifically, I look at the receptor that vitamin D binds to...is it there and does it actually interact with the vitamin? This may seem trivial or unimportant on a global scale, but be assured, my work impacts you. Doctors, nutritionists, personal trainers, and food and pharmaceutical companies need my data to keep you healthy. But I need government funding to do my work because the thing with the corporations is - big food, supplements, pharmaceuticals, fitness magazines, health clubs - are sure as shit not backing my research. It’s simply not profitable. There is NO free market incentive. Until there is product that can go into a store for you to buy, my work is only a building block. And, I am 100% fine with that. Because I am genuinely interested in the health of people. If my little puzzle piece helps someone with multiple sclerosis, or diabetes, or simply deteriorating muscle tone with age, than I have done my part for progress.
But, to be completely honest, I'm not sure I want to do it anymore.
I haven’t been able to go to work since October 1. And believe me, it hasn’t been a vacation. My deadlines are still there, expectations have not waivered. Yet, I was listening to a caller on an NPR radio program the other day rage about how the government should stay shut, because “they’re funding animal research anyway”, as if that justifies full closure of all scientific progress of this country. Tangentially, what this woman doesn’t understand (among many other things, clearly) is that if my colleagues and I don’t examine animals, no one learns anything…because I can’t simply start cutting people open! Imagine if I tried to harvest a small part of your living pancreas in order to study the origins of your diabetes. To be completely frank, it would kill you, because you can't live with a hole in your pancreas. But, I digress...
This woman was additionally irate because she seemed to think that her tax dollars were going to “fund the private education of the kids of people on the government payroll”. I have news for you. I am 32 years old. I have been paying my OWN tuition for the past 12 years -- four years of undergrad, 4 years of graduate school, and just over 4 years of doctoral work -- nevermind the tuition of my non-existent children. My current research is partially funded by a government stipend, and I make $23,000 per year.
Here’s the truth, lady. I’m not getting rich off this. I don’t live in an ivory tower, and neither does anyone else I work with. The majority of people that I went to high school and college with have good paying jobs, with families and houses in the 'burbs. Most of my colleagues and I put that on hold because we want to expand our knowledge and that of others. We do this because we love the intellectual puzzle, the chase of discovery. We are enamored by the opportunity to learn how our bodies truly work so that we can help make people more healthy.
Please don’t misunderstand, without going all Pollyanna here, I am incredibly humbled and grateful to actually get paid to work with some of the most preeminent scientists of my day. I am thrilled to be learning the skills necessary to keep scientific progress moving forward. But I am in no way funneling tax dollars, despite this woman's claims and those of several politicians, who insist that scientists are corrupt and our data is fraudulent. (...In fact, in order to let us all know that our work is completely suspect these Congressmen have recently decided through the "High Quality Research Act", that they know research better than academic scholars and will determine who and who does not get funding, based on their own expertise...political science research was the first to get the ax.)
So, now the government is back open...but researchers still face inevitable defunding due to the cutbacks in research from the sequester (nevermind what may happen as we reassess the federal budget and debt ceiling in February). To that point, in an interview for one of the few postdoctoral positions open currently, a highly funded NIH lab director asked me if “I was interested in running my own ‘government funded’ lab one day?”. I almost choked! I wanted to scream, “Can’t you see the world we are living in right now? I am going to get NIH funding right about the time that I start getting my first social security check, sir.” Instead, I punted some answer about having to source alternative funding and ensuring that my research skills were strong enough to establish continuing support until major resources became available...blah, blah, blah. All the time rolling my eyes about the pie-in-the-sky-idea of major government grants trickling down to basic research, forget about a few drops quenching the thirst of junior scientists.
A recent piece in Forbes magazine discusses how nearly 20% of scientists are contemplating an overseas move due to the sequester and dwindling federal support. Yet, despite my frustration and fear for the future of my field, I'm not going anywhere. I believe in my work and my ability to affect change through my data and my voice, and I can only hope that is enough to continue down this career path. But, I get it when people say they're leaving. After years and years of schooling and work, to have the rug pulled out from underneath you is demoralizing. Ironically, these politicians are the ones that promote the "Great American Dream, with its economics of inclusion, enabling everyone to have a chance to own, invest, build, and prosper." I suppose over a decade's worth of learning, a terminal degree, and groundbreaking basic research isn't what they had in mind...
I spoke with my grandparents on Facetime the other day (they are highly evolved septuagenarians) and they said, "You'll figure this out, you'll get through this..." But, honestly, I'm not so sure. Because, at this point, when I'm literally locked out of my lab, it's out of my hands.