​The Importance of Pond Scum

Pond scum taught us more about our brains than generations of research. GOP leadership should learn from it.

In 2002, researchers from the University of Texas submitted a grant proposal for “Rhodopsin Signaling in a Model Eucaryotic [sic] Microorganism.” The proposal passed the stringent grant proposal review process at the National Science Foundation and was fully funded.

If the proposal had been submitted today, however, under a title closer to that of the final paper, it’s likely a quick Google search for “phototaxis” would have landed it on the chopping block of every vigilant government-spending “watchdog” out there.

I mean, we’re talking about allocating $261,001 to fund to study the way pond scum move towards light.

Yet, the study of this green algae and its receptors that allow for such movement towards light changed neuroscience more than, arguably, any single discovery in recent history. It was the discovery of a channelrhodopsin, a light-sensitive protein in the receptors, that has fueled this revolution. Channelrhodopsins specifically are ion channels that “open” when light hits them, thus causing the neurons they are found in to fire.

From here, it was a short jump to developing methods to carry these channelrhodopsins into specific neurons, allowing researchers to “turn on” precise neurons using light. This method, known as optogenetics, has led to advances in our understanding of memory, addiction, disorders such as OCD and anxiety, diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and other open questions in neuroscience.

These findings are a testament to not only the power of good science, but also the power of experts managing good science. A cursory view of the study by non-experts would not have seen the 40 years of research that laid the foundation for it, the potential future applications, or what the experts in the field found inherently valuable in it: that it may further our knowledge of the world, whether or not it had obvious applications.

However, Lamar Smith and other congressional “watchdogs” think that they know better. Smith, a Christian Scientist (not to be confused with a Christian scientist), has served as the Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee since 2013.

That same year, Smith started investigating the NSF’s grant award process based on his interpretation of what should qualify as relevant science. More recently, he placed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under subpoena for publishing a scientifically accurate paper that he believed, in his personal opinion, to be false. Given his recent re-election to the chairmanship, we can expect such efforts to continue under a Trump presidency, especially with regard to NSF funding.

The NSF grant review process generally takes over half a year and is one of the most thorough systems for scientific funding in the world. Proposals undergo several levels of review before they are approved or denied.

This process, however, is not enough for Smith. He repeatedly calls for increased levels of congressional intrusion in the NSF, justified by his interpretation of titles of funded proposals. Yet, the fact remains that Lamar Smith is not, nor has ever been, a scientist in any fields concerned with his multiple “audits.”

France Córdova, current Director of the NSF, has, under these audits, worked with congressional leadership to improve transparency and open communication while still preserving the integrity, efficiency, and autonomy of the NSF’s processes. Although, by statute, her term as NSF Director would expire in 2020, the statute also stipulates she could be removed by the President at any time, and President-elect Trump has shown a willingness to break with convention when it comes to appointments. Without a champion, the NSF’s rigorous, expert-driven processes may well give way to a process driven by burdensome, politicized bureaucracy.

Ultimately, calls for “more transparency” lead us to two major issues. First, the already robust, difficult, and extensive grant proposal process will become more difficult, more extensive, and not any more robust. Second, non-technical explanations of research will be further used to bolster arguments against valid scientific research, as Smith has already done.

The latter issue is the more unexpected of the two—it seems logical that taxpayers and congressional leaders like Rand Paul and Smith should have all the details about NSF spending. This conclusion, however, is ill-founded. It relies upon the assumption that each grant proposal stands alone, as an island, unrelated to broader fields of inquiry. Such a view of science is what leads to calls for more applied research and less basic research. It is a misplaced belief that science is like building a tower one floor at a time—that each discovery will beget implementable results.

However, this is not science. Science is a sprawling, interlocked web of ideas. It doubles back on itself. It hits dead ends. But sometimes, importantly, it connects two paths that never were thought to be connected. And it is by these connections that we make some of our most groundbreaking discoveries. These are almost always the result of decades of nuanced research that may seem frivolous to someone outside the field. Yet, things are usually not as simple as they seem, especially in the sciences.

Thus we come back to our case study for the necessity of basic science—the optogenetic revolution. Had Smith and others had their way, it’s likely we’d never have optogenetics, nor all of the progress that it has fueled.

In a Politico op-ed, Smith and Paul argue that they are not on a "war against science.” I agree. To be engaged in such a war would require them to holistically understand the scientific process. Instead, they have taken their electoral popularity as a mandate to be citizen-specialists, auditors-in-chief, scientific experts made overnight.

Without an NSF Director willing to push back against overbearing congressional leaders, the mechanism that has created the environment for American scientific advances during the last seventy years will be in jeopardy. In light of this, the scientific community must stand prepared—prepared to oppose more politicized intrusions; prepared to stand tall in the face of scientific illiteracy; prepared to defend itself from the pro-Smith, pro-applied, pro-bureaucracy movement within the GOP’s leadership.

Harrison Satcher ’19, a psychology concentrator, lives in Eliot House.