Apr. 25th, 2017

rebeccmeister: (cricket)
In the last week or two, I've gotten several of those emails that say, "Oh yeah, by the way, that job you applied for way back in September? Well...in case you couldn't read between the lines by now...we picked someone else."

Someone who had slightly better luck than me wrote an article that just got published about his experience job-hunting. I am hoping the detailed quantitative information that he tracked for his job application process will be helpful for people who haven't yet realized that this is how things now work within the biological sciences.* While the author provides the appropriate caveats (he's presenting his own anecdata), my conversations with other people who have recently been hired or who are currently on the job market suggest his experience is at least reasonably representative of the current norm.

The author applied for 60 jobs last fall, during the time when I struggled just to turn in 11 applications because of a grueling circadian research schedule, conference travel, and some concerns about not overburdening my letter-writers.

I don't mean for this to be a pity party, but my subconscious has other ideas. It keeps seeing fit to remind me that I don't know what I'm going to do next, and keeps suggesting that maybe I should have some sort of massive freakout or massive depressive episode. Meanwhile, I'd like to get data analyzed and manuscripts submitted, thankyouverymuch, and I'd like to carve out more time for working towards future prospects. A freakout won't help, but on the other hand, we don't exactly get to choose our emotions, and at least part of my emotional state has more to do with life circumstances outside of professional prospects anyway.**

-

Anyway, here is another thing to consider, from a very different angle: a detailed article on the sources and uses of US science funding. This is useful for perspective on what it means to support science in a substantive manner (as much fun as it is to march for science...).

In case you aren't immediately enticed to read the article, a couple elements to consider:

-The two main funding sources for basic research are the federal government and industry, which both vastly outpower state and local government spending (Figure 4).

-Industry spending has greatly outpaced government spending (Figure 4). However, if we examine total research spending as a percentage of GDP (Figure 2 in the article), it's apparent that there has actually been a general long-term increase in research spending since 1994.

-There are a lot of interesting shifts between different aspects of research - for example, between money devoted to "defense" versus "nondefense," or in totals devoted to things like medical research (big boost between 1998-2004) vs. space exploration (declining) vs. energy research (intermittent).

-If R&D expenditures are considered as a percentage of GDP, the US spends more than the EU as a whole, but less than Japan, South Korea, and China. The US also spends more based on several other comparison methods.

-The final section comments on the translation from these specific numbers to policy analysis, asking some important questions about social goals with research spending (basic research, applied research, development) and how various different goals should be balanced.


I think this article paints a useful picture that's different from what you might hear from a lot of scientists working in the trenches. As best I understand, competition for funding has gone up in the same manner as competition for academic jobs: more grant proposals submitted, fewer grants funded. I have to wonder if this side of things is partly due to pushes to increase STEM training. Anyway, from the vantage point of this article, for the moment the US is still looking pretty good in terms of its investment in science, which is some comfort. Obviously big changes to the federal budget could quickly alter the picture, but the longer-term view isn't so bad.



* I hope this audience includes at least one of my letter-writers.
** This isn't a super articulate sentence because this point isn't my main focus for this post and I don't want to elaborate right now.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I'm currently reading the chapter on insect feeding and digestion.

Here's the thing: insects are tremendously diverse. They are one of the most diverse groups of organisms on our planet, and that's a big part of why a lot of people think we need to do a good job of cataloguing them (to say nothing of preventing species from going extinct).

It naturally follows that insects have diverse, amazing feeding apparatuses and digestive systems. I'll just highlight two.

First example: mosquitoes. People like to refer to mozzies as "flying syringes," because they don't simply poke you and then lap up blood as it comes out. No: they inject anticoagulants, and THEN they take out blood.

Then there are xylem-feeding insects, which extract liquid from a fluid-filled plant tube that operates with negative pressure (in contrast, blood flows via positive pressure). To suck out the liquid, these insects have to have a strong, muscular pump inside a region of their head called the cibarium. Scientists think the need to fight against negative pressure explains why there aren't any small xylem-feeding insects: those insects wouldn't have adequately large cibaria to counteract the xylem's negative pressure.

Yeah, crickets are pretty boring in comparison.

There are also lots of exotic modifications to the digestive tract, depending on whether the organism is trying to extract nutrients from an extremely nutrient-poor aqueous solution, like the xylem-feeder, or from a slurry, et cetera. The insects that feed on extremely nutrient-poor liquid solutions tend to have incredibly long and convoluted digestive systems that promote swift removal of water and excess nutrients. Mosquitoes, for example, pee out extra liquid while they feed (starting at 2:02). Again, way more exotic than standard mammal examples.

The thing I really hadn't thought about much is this: digestive enzymes are very effective, but don't necessarily discriminate between the lining of the gut and the food that's getting churned around inside the gut. Therefore, to prevent self-digestion, most organisms very carefully regulate the production of digestive enzymes, tuning production to both the timing and composition of the food they've just eaten.

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