Graduate student frozen out of research in Antarctica because of U.S. government shutdown


Time on his hands. Sebastian Vivancos (inset) is part of the newly arrived team whose planned research activities at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica are being thwarted by the government shutdown.

After 5 years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, Jamie Collins knows what it’s like to be at sea. But nothing in his military service prepared him for his current 30,000-km scientific round trip to nowhere, courtesy of the failure of the U.S. Congress to approve a budget. His predicament is one of the stranger—and sadder—tales of how the government-wide shutdown is affecting researchers.

Collins, a third-year graduate student in chemical oceanography, arrived Wednesday at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Palmer Station in Antarctica. He was eager to begin working on a long-running ecological research project funded by NSF and to start collecting data for his dissertation in a graduate program run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But the rough seas he encountered during his 4-day crossing of the notorious Drake Passage in the south Atlantic—the final leg of a journey that began in Boston—paled in comparison to the storm he encountered once he stepped off the Laurence M. Gould, a U.S. icebreaking research vessel that ferries scientists and supplies between Puenta Arenas, Chile, and the west Antarctic Peninsula.

On Tuesday, NSF had announced that its contractor for Antarctic logistical support, Lockheed Martin, would begin putting the three U.S. stations on “caretaker” status unless Congress passed an appropriations bill to continue funding the government by 14 October. Although legislators will eventually adopt such a bill, nobody expects them to act in the next few days. Without an appropriation, NSF has no money to operate the stations.

For Collins, that announcement meant his plans for an intensive 5-month research regime had suddenly melted away. “The station manager told us not to unpack our stuff and to stay on the ship,” he says in a phone call to ScienceInsider from the ship. “She said we were to wait here for a week while they prepare to shut down the station. Then we’d sail back to Chile, and go home.”

Collins was stunned. “I had spent all summer preparing for this trip,” he says. He had filled three pallets with supplies for his experiments on how algae in the region detect and react to the presence of ultraviolet radiation, part of a larger effort to understand the role that bacteria play in sequestering carbon in the Southern Ocean. “Without the data from those experiments, I may have to reevaluate what to do for my Ph.D.,” he adds.

Collins was also part of the first wave of students arriving at Palmer this season to work on a research project, begun in 1990, that explores how the extent of annual sea ice affects the polar biota. The project is one of 26 so-called LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) sites around the world that NSF supports. He was scheduled to divide his time at Palmer between his own research and monitoring penguin colonies on several offshore islands as part of the LTER project. And he had signed up for a 6-week research cruise aboard the Gould that supplements the land-based LTER observations with oceanographic data collected up and down the peninsula.

Despite the jarring news, the 31-year-old Collins says that he is more worried about what it may mean to some of his younger colleagues with less worldly experience. “I spent 5 years in the military and I’m used to dealing with bureaucracy,” he explains. “And nothing that happens here is going to deter me from pursuing my goal of a career in science. But for some of the undergraduates on the trip, this is their first taste of what Congress thinks about the value of scientific research. And it’s sending them a pretty horrific message.”

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Researchers claim NIH grant process is ‘totally broken’

conform and be funded


John Ioannidis, a researcher at Stanford University has, along with graduate student Joshua Nicholson, published a commentary piece in the journal Nature, taking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to task for maintaining a system that they say rewards conformity while ignoring innovation.

NIH is an agency within the US Department of Health and Human Services, and is the primary federal vehicle involved in offering money in the form of grants to researchers working to make in the biosciences. The agency reportedly has a budget of approximately $30 billion a year.

In their commentary piece, Ioannidis and Nicholson suggest that the process used by those in charge at NIH favors those who wish to work on incremental increases in current fields rather than rewarding those seeking funds for innovative, but more risky ventures. To back up their claims, they ran a search on research papers published in major journals over the past decade and found 700 papers that had been cited by authors in other papers at least 1,000 times. Of those papers, they say, just 40 percent of those listed as primary authors were working under an NIH grant.

To determine who to give grants to, NIH uses what are known as Study Sections. Their job is to read proposals sent to them by prospective researchers and then to decide whether to offer a grant to carry out the things discussed in the proposal. The Study Sections are in reality a group of people – a panel made up of scientists in the . And that’s part of a big problem at NIH, Ioannidis and Nicholson write, because people that serve on the panels tend to get more of the grant money. They note that just 0.8 percent of the 700 oft cited papers listed NIH panel members as a primary author. They contend that being highly cited is a credible measure of the degree of innovation of work.

The result the two say, is a system that systemically encourages incremental studies while discouraging those that are looking for big breakthroughs. And that they say, has led to both conformity and mediocrity. This they add goes against NIH’s mandate, which is to “fund the best science.” They recommend that NIH change its grant review process to encourage more innovation even if it means taking more risks.

More information: Research grants: Conform and be funded, Nature, 492, 34–36 (06 December 2012) doi:10.1038/492034a