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Letter To The Editor: Idea For Retired LANL Scientists

on May 6, 2017 - 1:59pm
By RICHARD NEBEL, Ph. D
Los Alamos
 
This is in response to the recent “retired scientists” letter in the Post (link). First of all, let me disclose that I do have some skin in this game.
 
Our company is funded by the ARPA-E, which is the one part of the DOE that the Trump administration wants to eliminate completely. And obviously, I don’t agree with that.
 
My primary issue with the “retired scientists” letter is that I think they have misdiagnosed the problem. The problem isn’t that people are opposed to science. The problem is that the public has come to associate science with big government. The federal government funds almost all scientific research. Then they use some of that science to tell people what they can and cannot do.
 
Let me give you an example. Most of my family are or have been Illinois farmers. These are people who have spent their entire lives doing hard, manual labor. They are regulated by the federal government, particularly the USDA and the EPA. 
 
The federal government also has the responsibility of protecting wetlands, and wetlands are heavily regulated. So how do you determine what is a wetland and what isn’t? 
 
A few years back, the government decided to take the “scientific” and “unbiased” approach and use soil types to make this determination. That’s nuts.
 
Prior to 1837, Illinois was largely a swamp. Then in 1837 John Deere invented the self-scouring or moldboard plow. Now farmers were able to cut the soil on that previously untillable land. The swamps were drained and those previous swamps became the most productive farmland in the world. But the soil types were still the soil types of a swamp. 
 
So, the “scientific” federal government comes in and tries to regulate these farms like they are wetlands, even though the wetlands ceased to exist 180 years ago. Do you see the “faceless bureaucrat from Washington” aspect of this?
 
Now let’s fast forward to the “scientists march” of a couple of weeks ago. Here are a bunch of predominantly old white guys, most of whom have been or are making six figure salaries funded by the government, out marching in the streets for science. The optics of that spectacle are absolutely terrible. How do you think that looks to those Illinois farmers, who the “scientists” tried to regulate? Or to anybody else who works with their hands for a living? Do you think you are going to get their support?
 
Let me make a couple of modest suggestions. First of all, if you want to advocate or make policy, you shouldn’t be taking scientific research money from the government. That’s a conflict of interest, and it casts a shadow on the credibility of your research.
 
Secondly, I think that scientific research in this country is horribly broken. Proposal success rates at NSF are about 5 percent. LDRD is probably 10 percent or less. At ARPA-E, the success rate for the open proposal call (that we were awarded) was about 1.6 percent. The upshot of this is that scientists are spending more time writing proposals than they are doing scientific research. And in academia, it’s even worse. On top of that, we now have an army of postdocs who are stuck on the postdoc merry-go-round. They go from one postdoc to the next with only a modest hope of finding a staff position. We desperately need new paradigms for funding research that aren’t so dependent on the government.
 
So what should we be doing about it? If you are close to retirement at LANL, do it. Free up a staff position for a young person. And don’t retire with the idea that you are going to go back as a guest scientist and double-dip at the lab. If you want to go back, do it for free. That was a very common practice when I came to LANL in 1980, and we need to revive it.
 
If you do retire, then consider forming a company. You can either make it a research company or you can develop products to generate a revenue stream to finance your research. You can at least initially finance your own salary with your retirement. That takes away most of the personal risk and will make your company resilient. We did that for four years at my company before we found external funding. Computing has gotten extremely cheap and used experimental equipment is readily available on e-Bay and elsewhere. It isn’t all that expensive to do.
 
If you don’t feel confident forming your own company, then consider financing one for someone else. Only 30 percent of the postdocs at LANL get converted to staff jobs. It would be wonderful if we could set up the remaining 70 percent as entrepreneurs in Los Alamos.
 
My point in all of this is that if we want to reestablish credibility in science, marching in the streets isn’t going to do it. The way to do it is to demonstrate that we are so passionate about science that we are willing to fund it ourselves if we have to. That will get people's attention. Realistically, the only people who can afford to do that are the retired scientists. Like all of you people who signed the “retired scientists” letter. Rod Mason and Jeff Martin are already doing this. How about the rest of you?

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