‘Pipettes and Politics’ episode 2 ?>

‘Pipettes and Politics’ episode 2


The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s science policy podcast, “Pipettes and Politics,” has released its second episode. 

In this installment, we cover updates on the controversial Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; the retirement of U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee; and the National Institutes of Health’s request for information on developing emojis for use in scientific presentations.

We’re also joined by Matt Hourihan, director of the Research and Development Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Hourihan discusses discretionary spending caps, budget deals, and the impact they have on science budgets.



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BENJAMIN CORB:    Hello, and thank you for joining us. This is Pipettes and Politics, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s science policy podcast. I’m your host, Ben Corb, the public affairs director for ASBMB, and as always, I am joined by Andre Porter.

ANDRE PORTER:    Hey, how are you doing?

BENJAMIN CORB:    And Daniel Pham.

DANIEL PHAM:    Hey, everyone.

BENJAMIN CORB:    I want to thank you for joining our last episode in which we talked about the tax policy issue, the tax reform bill that was going through the House of Representatives at the time. We have a little bit of an update on that, that we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about some quick hit topics, things like funding the government into the next fiscal year, things like budgetary policy, and maybe also the retirement of an important member of the House of Representatives that is upcoming. So, there are lots of issues that we’re going to get to.

Also, I’m excited to mention that we’ll have a guest in the second segment, and that is Matt Hourihan, who is the research and development budget director for AAAS. He’s going to be talking to us about the impact of raising fiscal spending caps on science funding for the next year. So, that’s what we’ve got in store for you today.

The first thing we want to do is give an update on tax policy and tax reform. Last week, we talked about the impact of the House of Representatives tax reform bill on graduate students. The impact that the … what’s called the so called grad student tax would have on graduate students in the scientific enterprise all across the country. The Senate currently is debating. It is 1 o’clock on Friday, December the 1st, and we expect passage from all the news that we’re reading. So, we’re going to assume that there’s passage of the Senate tax reform bill.

It’s got some differences in it from the House bill, and those differences are pretty significant, particularly with this graduate student tax. Andre, what’s the difference between what the Senate is about to pass as we understand it, and what the House has passed?

ANDRE PORTER:    The bill that the Senate has does not include the tuition waiver deduction removal that the House bill proposed. The graduate students’ school employee tax assistance is the same as current law, so students will not be taxed on their tuition waivers. The student interest deduction is also the same as current law, and the student tax credits are the same as current law. The tax on interest to student loans that the House removed is placed back in in the Senate tax bill, so they’re faring a lot better than they did in the House bill.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Let’s be fair. ASBMB opposed the House bill HR1. We didn’t formally put out a statement regarding the Senate bill. However, much of the same assumptions from the previous bill still exist today. This bill doesn’t have that student grad tax. It does still … depending on the analysis that you read, it does still have a trillion dollars in deficit that’s added, correct?


ANDRE PORTER:    Right. So, according to the budget office-

DANIEL PHAM:    The joint committee on taxation, I think.

ANDRE PORTER:    Right, and the CBO. It’s at $1.4, $1.5 trillion in increased deficits over 10 years.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Right, and so, even one of the things that they had been discussing in the Senate was the sort of triggers that are necessary. Maybe triggers in cuts to spending that might help to reduce the deficit. The bottom line is the bill still has … Even without the graduate student tax issue, there are still macro fiscal policy issues that this bill doesn’t address, or problems that it’ll cause down the line. It’s something that we’re still watching. It’s something that we’re opposing.

The next step is this is going to go to conference, right? So, the next step is going to be members of the Senate from both parties, members from the House from both parties are going to sit down and hammer out the differences between the House bill and the Senate bill. Daniel, what have you seen the graduate student community doing, particularly in opposition to the grad tax issue?

DANIEL PHAM:    Yeah. It’s been really great to see a lot of movement and momentum within universities all throughout the US. About 40 universities joined in to protest the tax on tuition waivers just recently, and it was really cool to see how many people became really energized, and were able to mobilize in such short notice. Moving forward, I think we need to make sure that the message goes beyond this tuition waiver, because that may or may not be an issue anymore depending on the conference, because again, we know that the Senate tax bill does not include the tuition waiver. People in the House have also mentioned that when they go to conference, this provision will not be something that they’re going to push anyway. So, keep up the good work. It’s great to see so many people out and calling their representatives. We just need to make sure our messaging is accurate and successful.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Yeah, and so, just to hammer the point that you made home. The chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is where tax policy stems from, is Congressman Kevin Brady. Kevin Brady, out on the floor of the House of Representatives, had a discussion with other Republican members who were concerned about the impact that the grad student tax would have on their constituency they represented. They had universities in their district. Mr. Brady, during that discussion, had mentioned a recognition and an understanding of the issue that it was going to cause. I believe that the quote that he had said was they’re looking forward to go into conference where they can design a fix to this problem.

What that means is unclear. Does that mean the waiver repeal will go away completely in conference? I’m not sure, but it’s an indication that the messaging, as you mentioned Daniel, it’s being heard. People are recognizing it. We have seen mainstream media, not just the science and natures, but the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, places where normal people, not scientists get their news from have been talking about this issue as well. So, we’re going to continue to watch it. Listen to us. Go to our blog policy.asbmb.org where we’ll be updating things. Follow us on Twitter. We’ll be keeping a lot of information there.

We’re going to move on to another issue that’s facing us. We are T minus three or four days maybe from government shutdown. That currently, we are operating under a continuing resolution, which expires December …


DANIEL PHAM:    8th.

BENJAMIN CORB:    8th, okay. So my math was off. We’re seven days away from a government shutdown. Does anyone here at the table have an update on where we are? Are we going to have another continuing resolution? Do we have any updates there?

ANDRE PORTER:    From everything that I’ve heard, we’re looking at a potential extended CR into January, maybe late December. So, we might to hit that cliff on next Friday, December 8th, but it’s just kicking the ball down the road maybe a month or so.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Yeah, it seems like most of the work is done. Again, even before we got to this point, a lot of the appropriations bills had been written and were pretty well ready to go. It’s just a matter of getting over some of these policy hurdles. I think it’s a matter of getting this tax bill out of the way so we can clear the decks. I don’t see … Anyone can correct me here. Anyone see an appetite in Congress for a government shutdown?


DANIEL PHAM:    No, I don’t think so. I think there’s no benefit to any party to have a government shutdown at this point.

BENJAMIN CORB:    If you think about the … The Republican Party has several factions in the House of Representatives. There’s a group that’s called the Tuesday Group, and that’s really moderate Republicans. There is the Freedom Caucus, which is the more conservative, the more fiscal budget hawk type wing of the Republican Party. The leaders of both of those groups have come out and said that they’re working together in order to get an agreement for a continuing resolution, so it seems like we’re moving towards a CR, maybe avoiding … hopefully, knock on wood, avoiding a government shutdown and continuing things forward.

Another news topic that we had seen that’s being talked about, chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, Congressman …

DANIEL PHAM:    Lamar Smith.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Lamar Smith. Congressman Lamar Smith is retiring at the end of this term. He has been the chair of House SciTech for … this is his second term, I believe? His first term?

ANDRE PORTER:    This is halfway through his third term.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Wow, okay. So, he’s halfway through his third term. He’s resigning and stepping down, which will leave an opening for leadership in the House Science and Technology Committee. Anyone have anything they want us to talk about with regards to Mr. Smith’s role as chair in that committee?

ANDRE PORTER:    I do want to put a quick note that he is retiring at the end of his term. He would have been ousted anyway, because he can only serve six years as the chair of the committee, so he’s finishing out his sixth year.

BENJAMIN CORB:    There was going to be a new chair of the committee anyway, but he is retiring from Congress entirely.


BENJAMIN CORB:    So, one of the things that I’ve noticed during his tenure … I’ve been doing science policy for the better part of 12 years now. There was a time when members of congress viewed the House Science and Technology Committee as one of the last bastions of bipartisanship. Chairman Bart Gordon from Tennessee, a Democrat, Congressman Ralph Hall from Texas, a Republican, these were guys that worked really well together when the party power was flipping back and forth. There was a lot of good work that was coming out of that.

I will say that I believe Mr. Smith’s role as the chair, people will look back as it as more of a controversial time. During Mr. Smith’s leadership, a lot of attention went to NASA and space exploration, which in science is a good thing. He was very critical of the National Science Foundation, and there were several, shall we say, skirmishes between the committee leadership and the leadership of the National Science Foundation about peer review. I remember distinctly a bill that was an affront to the peer review process that was released in draft form, and got the community crusted as quickly as it possibly could. So, I think history will look back on Mr. Smith’s role as the chair of the committee as some good and some bad.

DANIEL PHAM:    Fraught?

BENJAMIN CORB:    Yeah, I think fraught is a good term for it, so we’ll look forward to seeing who … what party is going to be leading, so we’ll know what party the leader of this committee will come from, but also who the next chair of this committee will be. Again, this chair, this committee has congressional jurisdiction over NASA, the National Science Foundation, and a lot of the science related agencies that are not the NIH.

DANIEL PHAM:    Right.

BENJAMIN CORB:    The oversight for the NIH comes from the Energy and Commerce Committee, the health sub-committee over there. So … Go ahead, Daniel.

DANIEL PHAM:    I’ve got to say it’s kind of funny. People had thought that when Lamar Smith started his chairmanship, that it would continue the bipartisan feeling, because he had chaired the Judiciary Committee before, which was really successful.

ANDRE PORTER:    Yeah, and he pushed forward that patent bill that was a bipartisan effort, and everybody thought hey, this might be a good guy to go to the science committee, but he turned out to be, for better or worse, not so much suited for it. A lot of the things that he pushed for, he’s been a champion for STEM education. It’s really the research committee that’s been hit. He’s put through, sponsored, and pushed forward a lot of bills that looked out for veterans in STEM, and STEM education for all, and diversity and inclusion.

I think, and I don’t want to channel Lamar Smith, but I think a lot of his concerns dealt with … He tried to push those types of amendments all the time where it was research for the national interest, right? What does that mean? He defined it as something that was very critical of research, and very … I think there were reports of him sending staff members, sending his staff to go through the papers and read people’s abstracts. So, I think he may have been misguided. He had good ideas. They were very controversial. They were very conservative. They weren’t helping the research community, but when it came to STEM education, he was a champion for it. Prior to him being the chair, he was a champion for the patent law.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Yeah. So, I think we’ll do is we’ll thank you Mr. Smith for your service to your country, and we’ll look forward to a new relationship and new leadership in that committee. I want to thank you all for listening. This is Pipettes and Politics. We’ll be taking a break now, and on the other side of the break, we’ll be joined by MATT HOURIHAN, where we’ll be talking budget caps and federal spending in science. Stick with us, and we will be right back.

COMFORT DORN:    Like this but want more? Why not visit the ASBMB policy blog where you’ll see news and analysis on all things Washington? Visit www.policy.asbmb.org.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Welcome back. This is Ben Corb, and you’re listening to Pipettes and Politics. I’m joined now by Matt Hourihan, who is the research … Matt, what’s your title?

MATT HOURIHAN:    Director of the R&D budget program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Matt is really an expert in the city when it comes to budget, budgetary impacts on research and development. This guy knows it all, and his website has everything he knows, which is a really impressive thing. Matt, can you tell the people your Twitter handle?

MATT HOURIHAN:    Yeah, I’m just @matthourihan.

BENJAMIN CORB:    You want to spell that?

MATT HOURIHAN:    Yeah it’s Matt with two Ts, and then H-O-U-R-I-H-A-N.

BENJAMIN CORB:    And the website for AAAS’s R&D budget analysis?

MATT HOURIHAN:    Just aaas.org/rd.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Great. It’s a really fantastic website, interactive tools for being able to create charts and look at things historically. It’s a great go to thing. I know we in our office use it often, so thank you for doing that, doing the work you do.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Sure. Thanks for having me.

BENJAMIN CORB:    The idea today was to talk about there is the outline of what could be a budget deal, raising caps kind of equally, not exactly equally. You actually had a bit of a tweet storm about it when it first came out, which grabbed my attention. So, I was wondering maybe we can have a little conversation, talk about big picture, what that deal is.


BENJAMIN CORB:    Then maybe specifically, how it might impact some of the people that are listening to this.


BENJAMIN CORB:    If there is a deal.

MATT HOURIHAN:    If there is a deal, that’s the big if.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Yeah, so go ahead. Tell us a little bit about the framework.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Okay. The background is that Congress, many years ago, back in 2011, they capped discretionary spending. When we say discretionary spending, we mean about one third of the federal budget or so that Congress actually allocates every year through the appropriations process. It’s where just about all science spending is contained, so the NIH budget, the NSF budget, the NASA budget, all of it is in the discretionary budget.

Now, in the current fiscal year, the year that we’re in, those discretionary spending caps are slated to decline by about a half a percentage point, so a small decline from 2017 to 2018. A lot of people in Congress are not happy with this current state of affairs. You’ve got defense hawks who want to see more defense spending. You’ve got Democrats who want to see increases in both defense and non-defense spending. So, they’ve been talking for a while now about how to get together and come up with a deal to raise the spending caps.

Now, the potential deal was reported, I guess what? A couple of weeks now, that leaders of the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress had discussed a deal that would raise defense spending by about 54 billion in 2018, and non-defense spending by about 37 billion in 2018, so a bigger increase for defense than non-defense. On the one hand, anytime that we can get an increase in the spending caps, it’s a good thing, because that ultimately benefits science and technology. However, Democrats have rejected that deal so far because they want to see even dollar for dollar increases for defense and non-defense. Well, the deal … Again, it would be a slightly bigger increase for defense spending.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Just historically … So the budget control act that instituted all of this in 2011-


BENJAMIN CORB:    every time that there’s … We’ve basically never really followed the caps.


BENJAMIN CORB:    Every year, we’ve busted through the caps, and historically, every deal that’s come out has been balanced. There’s been parity. It’s been the same amount of increase for defense and non-defense. Is that true?

MATT HOURIHAN:    Right, and that’s been the principle for Democrats from the start. Any increase, understandably so, because many Republicans are much more in favor of defense spending than non. So, Democrats, their negotiating position has been we want to see dollar for dollar increases for both defense and non-defense. It gets a little tricky because the original spending caps, the original sequestration that the spending caps put in place was actually larger for defense discretionary spending than non-defense discretionary spending.

So, for the past several years, when they’ve reached these deals, they haven’t completely wiped away sequestration, but because they haven’t gotten back to that pre-sequestration spending level, it’s been easy for Democrats to argue for even money, defense and non-defense going up by the same amount. With this deal, the deal that they are talking about now, it would completely wipe away sequestration in 2018, but wiping away sequestration completely by definition means defense has to go up by more than non-defense, because the original sequestration, the original spending caps took more money out of the defense budget than the non-defense budget in terms of total dollars.

BENJAMIN CORB:    That’s because as the discretionary budget is split up, it’s not a 50, 50 split between the discretionary and non-discretionary. It’s more like 60, 40. Is that close?

MATT HOURIHAN:    The total federal budget is 60, 40 discretionary versus … the other piece of the budget is mandatory spending.


MATT HOURIHAN:    That’s where your social security, your Medicare, your Medicaid. So, the original spending caps, they entirely brought down defense discretionary spending. On the defense side, it was totally focused on discretionary spending. On the non-defense side, it was mostly discretionary spending, but they also did bring down some Medicare, Medicaid spending as well, so it wasn’t completely … As you say, it wasn’t split, or wasn’t completely discretionary. It was split between mostly discretionary for non-defense, but also some mandatory spending. But strictly discretionary spending, the defense cuts were bigger.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Let’s talk a little bit about an increase in caps to the non-defense discretionary side of the budget. What does that mean for science? Let’s look historically. The NIH, which is the largest funder of the people for the organization that I work for, has been the recipient of about a $2 billion increase for the past two budgetary cycles, and is on the hook for maybe another billion to $2 billion increase this next budget cycle. Those increases don’t happen without increases to the caps in those budgetary years.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Basically.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Is that right?

MATT HOURIHAN:    Yeah. I mean, the way to think about just the discretionary budget in general, and the caps in particular is that it sets the size of the sandbox that Congress has to play with. Once Congress knows the size of the sandbox, then they can choose how to fill it with individual grains of sand. So, they’ll put in some money for NIH, some money for the public defense, some money for the Department of Labor, etc. So when discretionary spending goes up, it means there’s simply more room in the sandbox Congress can put more grains of sand in for the things that they like.

One of the things that they’ve loved, and historically have loved is biomedical research. NIH is one of the most popular, probably the most popular science agency in the Congress, or one of the most popular agencies, period in the Congress. This last couple of years, yes, they … One of the big reasons they’ve been able to provide $2 billion increases for NIH for a couple of years now is because they were able to work out a bipartisan spending deal that raised the caps by quite a bit in 2016, and then less so in 2017. But for both of those years, Congress ultimately had a lot more funding room to work with than they would have if the caps had stayed in place. That meant they had that extra room. They could direct some extra funding for NIH.

BENJAMIN CORB:    So, what have the caps meant for … Let’s take NIH aside. Let’s talk a little bit more broadly about science, NSF, NASA, DOE. What have the caps meant for science funding in those agencies? Have they been as lucky, or as favored as the NIH has been, or have they been struggling through the caps and the spending limitations that exist?

MATT HOURIHAN:    It’s all been fairly similar. I mean, when discretionary spending goes up, most science agencies go up. One of the weird quirks of our system, we have a … It’s an incredibly decentralized funding system in the Congress for science. We’ve got lots of different sub-committees responsible for different agencies, but in spite of that decentralization, since the early 80s, R&D spending and science spending has tended to track the discretionary budget pretty closely. So, when discretionary spending goes up, most science agencies go up, maybe to varying degrees.

In some years, some will fare better than others, but these last few years, it’s been pretty fairly uniform, especially with the big, basic research agencies, the discovery science agencies. So, NSF, NIH, NASA, the Office of Science, the Department of Energy, generally they’ve fared pretty well relative to the discretionary budget when discretionary levels increase. Again, a given agency in a given year may fare better or worse, but in the aggregate, they all tend to fare pretty well.

Actually for one concrete example, so, I mean, the position we’re in now with the discretionary caps in 2018 scheduled to drop, and Congress talking about a potential deal to raise the caps, we were in this exact same position two years ago. Two years ago, Congress came up with a similar deal to what they’re talking about now.

BENJAMIN CORB:    I think that was the Ryan-Murray deal.

MATT HOURIHAN:    I believe so, yeah.

BENJAMIN CORB:    It was maybe the first big bipartisan budget agreement.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Yeah. Well, this would have been the second one because there have been a couple of them now.


MATT HOURIHAN:    In 2016, they come up with this deal. They raised discretionary spending by about 5.5% or so, and every science agency ended up benefiting. 2016 was one of the strongest years for science funding we’ve had in the past decade purely because they secured this big increase in the discretionary budget. So NIH certainly benefited, but then so did NASA, and the Department of Energy, Department of Defense. Even some of the less favored agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for example, they fared pretty well also. So, when the discretionary budget goes up, it really does tend to generally lift all boats on the science front.

BENJAMIN CORB:    So this budget deal would open the doors for us to continue down this path. Is that …? Were this to go forward … But it doesn’t have the parity, it’s not dollar for dollar, and so that’s going to be maybe the sticking point for Democrats on the hill, which is the argument has always been parity.


BENJAMIN CORB:    [crosstalk 00:25:20] I’m a co-chair of the organization NDD United, which has been for a long time, at the forefront fighting against sequester, fighting to raise the caps we have, or raise the caps had on the desk in front of us here. All along, our argument has been for parity. So, that’s going to make this … that’s what makes the deal here a little bit sticky, is that it doesn’t have exactly dollar for dollar parity.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Exactly, and it’s sticky. It’s a choice because there’s other factors involved as well, not just spending levels. I can imagine a scenario where … For example, one of the big Democratic priorities is making some progress on DACA, on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the undocumented immigration program that was started by Obama and ended by Trump.

Democrats would like to see some progress on that front, so is it possible? Could we see, for example, a spending deal that breaks this parity principle, but gives the Democrats something on immigration? That’s one possibility, one way they could secure a final agreement, or maybe Democrats stick to their guns on the parity question. We end up with a deal that only increases defense and non-defense evenly, and doesn’t include other provisions Democrats might like, or maybe the whole thing falls apart. That’s another possibility too. I mean, we’re certainly in a place … We’re not in a place this is guaranteed by any means.

BENJAMIN CORB:    How reliant … We’re looking at a little more than a week until the current funding for the CR expires, right?

MATT HOURIHAN:    CR expires December 8th.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Okay, so does this agreement need to be done before Congress can take action on a full FY18 budget deal, or are we looking at probably in all likelihood an extension on the CR one more time?

MATT HOURIHAN:    Yeah. I mean, so what’s probably is going to happen … I mean, anything could happen in the next … It’s a week and a half from the time we’re recording this, but they could come up with a deal on the next week and a half. What’s probably the most likely scenario is they come up with a short term continuing resolution to extend current levels for two weeks, or three weeks, or a month, or whatever beyond that December 8th deadline. Appropriators are already talking, and it shouldn’t be … Once Congress comes up with a deal on the spending caps, then it’s maybe two or three more weeks for appropriators to hash out a final deal.

They’ve gotten a lot of the work done. They’ve already written a bunch of the spending bills. So, once that cap deal is in place, it should be pretty quick to come up with a final spending agreement that provides actual funding for science agencies, but they can’t do that until they come up with that spending deal, with that cap deal, so yeah. So, I mean, it looks like we’re not getting a deal. Maybe another few weeks, maybe they’ll extend the CR later into around the holidays, or maybe into January, and they’ll keep talking about the cap situation.

Hopefully we can get a deal on the caps within a few weeks, and then a few weeks after that, we’ll get final spending, but again, it all remains to be seen at this point.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Right, and the way Congress works these days, we have absolutely no idea.


BENJAMIN CORB:    Who knows what the thing’s that’s going to come up this week that’s going to derail everything is going to be?

MATT HOURIHAN:    Yeah. Well, the thing this week could be tax reform, because if Republicans can’t get tax reform through the Senate, through the Congress … If they can get tax reform, maybe that’s the legislative victory they need. Maybe that brings folks to the table, makes them more willing to negotiate, come up with a deal. Maybe makes it more likely that President Trump signs off on whatever the final deal looks like. If tax reform fails, well, that might diminish the odds for a spending deal. I don’t know if it means a shutdown necessarily, but the fortunes of this tax reform bill in whatever shape it ends up taking, I mean, that actually could have some indirect bearing on the cap deal.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Because the reality is both parties are going to need a victory.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Right, exactly.

BENJAMIN CORB:    The Republicans in particular. There’s been just so much pressure to have a legislative accomplishment.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Right, and they really don’t have much to show so far, so yeah.

BENJAMIN CORB:    This can just be the need to do something.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Exactly.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Cards on the table, likelihood that the deal that we’re talking about, as it’s constructed, passes. What do you think?

MATT HOURIHAN:    I mean, Democrats have already rejected it. So, yeah, the deal that they … I mean, that is the problem. We’ve got this potential deal. Democrats have already rejected it, so I don’t think they’d go back on their word and say, “We changed our minds.” So, something is going to have to change, either defense spending comes down and they achieve parity …

BENJAMIN CORB:    Non-defense spending goes up, and they achieve parity, which would be positive.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Or non-defense spending goes up, and they achieve parity. Yeah, right, that would be positive. Maybe unlikely, but I don’t know. I don’t know if I can even lay odds because there is … again, there are so many moving parts, and it’s very hard to see what’s going to happen, or how they’re going to get out of this, sorry.

BENJAMIN CORB:    That’s why we do a podcast like this, to let you all encounter what’s happening. In three days’ time, all of this might be moot, because a whole bunch of things might have happened, and that would be fine too. I want to thank you for your time, Matt.


BENJAMIN CORB:    Again Twitter, it’s @matt … with two Ts … hourihan. Thank you and we’ll be back after this.

MATT HOURIHAN:    Thank you.

COMFORT DORN:    Hello, this Comfort Dorn. I’m the editor of ASBMB Today, the member magazine of ASBMB. Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen violent demonstrations at Confederate monuments, pro football players protesting racism, and a president who wants to close borders and stifle immigration. So, if you’re an underrepresented minority in the biochemistry, molecular biology community, we want to know what you think the events of the last year have done to affect diversity and inclusion in science. How has life changed in your school, in your lab, in your workplace?

We’re looking for short essays to share in ASBMB Today describing what you’re seeing, hearing, and experiencing in your life, and we will share these responses in our February issue. The deadline for submissions is December 15th. Please email them to asbmbtoday@asbmb.org, and you can check our Facebook page for details.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Welcome back. This is Pipettes and Politics. You’re joined by Ben Corb.

ANDRE PORTER:    Andre porter.

DANIEL PHAM:    Daniel Pham.

BENJAMIN CORB:    I want to thank Matt for his time talking about budget caps and the impact on science funding. We wanted to close out today’s episode talking about a really critically important issue to science, and to the publication of science, and to rigor and reproducibility. That issue is, of course, emojis. Yes, the National Institute of Health a couple of weeks ago, specifically the NINDS, the neurological disorders and stroke institute, released a request for information. The notice number, for those of you who are interested, is NOT-NS-18-014. The purpose for that RFI is to solicit feedback from the scientific community on the potential utility of creating freely available simple symbols, emojis, to represent various aspects of experimental rigor or design for use in oral and poster presentations.

So, it sounds to me that the NINDS is looking for feedback from the community on if the NIH should develop emojis for usage at science conferences about your research. Daniel, recovering scientist …

DANIEL PHAM:    That’s me.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Dr. Daniel Pham, what are your thoughts on this?

DANIEL PHAM:    I think, as a scientist, there are potential benefits from creating icons. Maybe you shouldn’t call them emojis, or maybe the NINDS shouldn’t label them as emojis as that really denotes happy faces and sad faces, but I think icons that could represent different data rigors and things like that could be really beneficial. For example, in a [inaudible 00:34:14] talk or in a oral presentation at a seminar, scientists could post little symbols that could represent that the experiment that they’re showing is randomized by having a little dice icon on the bottom, or that these experiments were done while blinded by showing a little face with a blindfold. So, it has a potential to showcase more information than the actual talk itself, or the actual poster.

However, a few problems I could see coming with this is … the biggest one would be implementation, to make sure the whole scientific community understands what these symbols mean, because otherwise, people will mostly be confused if they just see a dice or a blindfolded guy on the bottom of a [crosstalk 00:35:05].

BENJAMIN CORB:    I would be confused.

DANIEL PHAM:    Because people would be confused, yeah, but there is definitely benefit if this becomes a widely used standardized practice, because they could … I can imagine them coming up with four to eight different symbols that could potentially tell more information than was actually given.


ANDRE PORTER:    So, I think I was indicative of a lot of people in the community where when I saw it, I was taken aback, of course, because I’m a contrarian when it comes to stuff like that, but I do see the merit in it. Take for instance menus when you’re at a restaurant. Now there is a V for vegetarian. There are symbols for gluten free. There are symbols for whatever else is going on with your food, but it helps them describe your food without putting this long descriptor. So, that point, to me, I think has merit.

To Daniel’s point about four to eight, I think the NINDS requested other examples. The problem there, in my opinion, is that you go from explaining and educating the community on a couple emojis or symbols, to a whole new lexicon of symbols that you have … Not only do you have to educate the researchers, but you have to educate the community. You have to educate different communities because an emoji, to somebody, may mean something totally different if you come from a different culture. So, there’s a lot of issues or hurdles that I think the NINDS, or NIH, or even any researcher that’s trying to implement some kind of symbols for their research or to convey research, they’ll have to jump over.

I think it’s a great idea. When I thought about the menu, I was like, “I get it.” If you want to talk about a double blinded study and you use a blindfolded emoji, or something to that effect, that’s simple. You don’t have to write double blinded. You can leave more room for information, but if you’re getting into the nitty-gritty of your study, and you’re trying to convey that with an emoji or with a symbol, I think you’ll lose the meaning of your research, so yeah.

BENJAMIN CORB:    One of the questions that I would have is I’m looking at I’ve never given a poster presentation. I guess part of me wants to say wouldn’t you just put the words double blinded on your slide or on your … I guess I’ve seen plenty of posters, and so the posters, they’re so dense with information.

ANDRE PORTER:    Right, exactly.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Anyway, I understand maybe the need to want to do that. The concern that I have is the optics of it. What happens when congressional leaders look and say why is the NIH spending taxpayer dollars developing an emoji? That’s a concern that I have, and I wonder, is the NIH the right place to develop these sorts of things, or is this something that should maybe be created organically from the community, from publishers like ASBMB or other scientific societies that publish journals and are really the voices of the community? Could the emojis be developed there and organically from the community?

ANDRE PORTER:    I would push back on that a little bit. I agree that the optics look odd to say the least. I think to Dan’s point, emoji is the wrong term to use. Symbol, something else would be-


ANDRE PORTER:    Icon would be better, but I think when you get to different organizations or different scientific disciplines creating them and birthing them so to speak, you silo where that symbol is coming from. If you have an agency like the NIH or the NSF which has a broader reach for different disciplines, then you have … in my opinion, you have … It’s almost like you’re preaching from the pulpit as opposed to having the congregation preach up to you, because you’re going to get different responses, different ideas. But if the pulpit says these are the symbols, and now, the community can adapt those symbols from one central organization, and NIH, of course, has the clout to say these are the symbols we’re using moving forward.

BENJAMIN CORB:    That’s a good point. Daniel, closing thoughts?

DANIEL PHAM:    In the RFI, it does request for if you have any ideas of visual designs of suggested icons, you can submit it to them too. That could be a way for us as ASBMB, if we have any ideas, or if you listen to us, have any ideas to submit to them, and then the NIH could then aggregate and decide which ones are the best. So, I think that is what they’re doing.

ANDRE PORTER:    A compromise between two.


ANDRE PORTER:    You’re getting it from the community as well the organization is disseminating it and standardizing it.

DANIEL PHAM:    Right, so I don’t … We’ll see how this goes.

BENJAMIN CORB:    So Daniel, you’re a thumbs up?

DANIEL PHAM:    I’m a thumbs middle.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Yeah, I’m looking at my photo of the emojis. Your thumb [crosstalk 00:40:02].

DANIEL PHAM:    I’m a thumbs up emoji.


ANDRE PORTER:    Can I be a prayer hands emoji? [crosstalk 00:40:06].

BENJAMIN CORB:    I’m going to be the monkey who’s got his hands up [inaudible 00:40:11] emoji for this one. That’s all the time that we have this week. I want to thank you all for listening. Distribute this podcast amongst your communities. Tweet us @bwcorb.

ANDRE PORTER:    @anporter_.

DANIEL PHAM:    @dpham20.

BENJAMIN CORB:    Of course, @asbmb is also our mother ship here. Use the #pipettesandpolitics. We will be doing this again in just a couple of weeks before the holidays. We’ll have a special holiday edition. No idea what that means, but we’re going to develop that over the next couple of weeks. I want to thank you for your time. I want to thank you for your attention. I loved seeing this being distributed, the last one that we did. I look forward to seeing this one out there, hearing your feedback. If you have ideas on what we should be saying, be sure to let us know. That’s it from our headquarters here in Rockville, Maryland. Have a great week, and we will be in touch with you soon. Bye now.


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