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Scientists sharing the wealth

If there’s anything my scientist friends shared on Facebook last week (besides videos of a high school basketball game in which He Falls Down Shooting a Three-Pointer and YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT), it’s the news about the National Institutes of Health's (NIH’s) funding.

This is the place where I’d usually say, “Congress decided that in 2016, NIH can make do with $50,000,” which, admittedly, is more than was raised by the Lincoln Chafee presidential campaign. Yet, for once, that’s not what happened. Congress actually agreed to boost NIH’s funding by $2 billion, or as scientists would say, $2.0 × 109.

This holiday season, if you work in a well-funded lab, consider the Ghost of Science Future. Find a local public school or other organization that may want your used equipment.

It’s NIH’s biggest funding increase since 2003. To give you a sense of how long ago that was, in 2003, NBC was still making new episodes of Friends. To give you an even better sense of how long ago that was, it was 12 years ago.

That’s a rare victory for science and for scientists. Not only does it validate our career choice, but it also gives us the tools we need to make the sort of discoveries that drove us to science in the first place. It even gives us hope about our priorities as a nation, which we otherwise usually think of as guns, cultural insensitivity, and lunch.

Those of you who’ve worked in multiple labs know that there’s a difference between a rich lab and a poor lab. In grad school, my lab—which wasn’t rich but was academia rich, in the same way I might be considered scientist athletic—decided to purchase premade gels to separate our protein samples. They cost about $10 each, making them a huge extravagance, because the other way to procure these gels is for grad students to spend a few hours making them. Buying the gels made us feel superior to smaller labs. “Oh, you’ve been pouring gels all afternoon? We don’t do that anymore.” But, after a few months, the expense became too great, and that was the end of the high life.

And yet we were still very fortunate. I was reminded of this last month when I spoke at a public high school in Baltimore, Maryland. I met many dedicated teachers there, including one who actually shed tears when recalling how many hours he had wasted preparing his students for a statewide standardized test. But the one I remember best is an 11th-grade chemistry teacher who runs several sections of chemistry lab. She told me that she truly regretted her first purchase this year: Bunsen burners for all of the lab stations. She spent a large chunk of her budget on them only to learn that the gas taps in her lab were not hooked up and that they weren’t going to be. She now has a pile of useless Bunsen burners resting in a corner of the lab.

She spent her own money on a butane-powered cigar lighter so that the students would be able to do something. Now students line up at her desk, and she heats their test tubes one at a time. She keeps the cigar lighter locked away—not out of fear that her students might wreak mayhem with it, but because if she loses it, then there’s no more chemistry lab.

The Bunsen burner debacle is all the more devastating because her annual budget—and this is meant to cover everything she needs to teach—and this is the grand total across all her students, all her sections, and the whole year—and YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT—is $200.

That’s a little more than a dollar per student.

I work in industry. When I hear “$200,” I don’t think “lab budget for the year.” I think “price of one tube of one reagent, if I buy the small one.”

And that’s not right.

Don’t misunderstand—it’s great that some scientists have necessary and even abundant resources to conduct their work. NIH’s fabulous 2016 budget will always be remembered as The year of “Oh Yeah, I Guess We Should Still Do Science.” But a boon to one institution, even a large one, doesn’t mean prosperity for all. There must be a way to ensure that the benefits trickle down, not just to those with careers in science, but also to those considering future careers in science.

It may not be much, but here’s something I do. When I first joined the biotech company where I work, I noticed we were discarding a lot of goggles. They arrive in sterile packaging, and once they’re nonsterile, we really don’t need them anymore. So every year, we would throw away a few hundred pairs of goggles that were perfectly good for anyone who didn’t need them to be sterile.

At the time, I had just finished teaching a science enrichment course for Baltimore public school teachers, so I offered to collect the goggles and bring them to the teachers who might find them useful. I had no idea if anyone would want them. After all, if there’s any phrase that might scare nervous parents, it’s “a molecular biology lab didn’t want these, but let’s put them on your kid’s face.”

That was 7 years ago. The goggles became popular, and now, once a year, I stuff my car with lab leftovers and drive them up to the teachers in Baltimore. I don’t give away chemicals, of course, or anything even remotely dangerous. But a box of plastic culture flasks we ordered in the wrong size? Sure! Pasteur pipettes technically past their expiration date but still sealed? Why not? Throw in a box of timers and digital thermometers that cost more to calibrate than to buy new, and you’ve got a roomful  of happy teachers.

Senator Bernie Sanders might call it “scientific socialism.” Donald Trump might call it “SCIENTIFIC SOCIALISM!” But it’s not redistribution of wealth. It’s just … you know, giving stuff that your lab doesn’t want to people who want it.

As scientists, we’re obligated to ensure that the next generation is ready to replace us. We want today’s high school students to think of science as an attractive career path, not that thing where they spend all of fifth period waiting in line to heat a test tube.

So, this holiday season, if you work in a well-funded lab, consider the Ghost of Science Future. Find a local public school or other organization that may want your used equipment. Set up a recurring transfer, and when you buy your shiny new test tube racks, add the old ones that work perfectly well and are perfectly safe to your “bring this next time I go” pile.

“This is all well and good, Adam,” I hear some of you saying, “but my lab’s budget is crap. Our computer runs Windows 3.1. We’ve been reusing the same pair of latex gloves for a year. And instead of using a microscope, we squint. How can I possibly help?”

First of all, isn’t it creepy how I can hear that? Second, you can still donate some of your time and expertise. Tutor a high school student, offer to give a guest seminar, or volunteer at science events.

Being a scientist isn’t just about doing science. It’s also about sharing your knowledge—and not just in the comments of your ignorant cousin’s vitriolic Facebook posts. Help advance the education that once convinced you to become a scientist.

You won’t believe what happens next.

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