Sex, Drugs and DNA: Science's Taboos Confronted

Sex, Drugs and DNA: Science's Taboos Confronted

by M. Stebbins

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Now available in paperback following huge critical acclaim. In a frank, edgy and entertaining style that pulls no punches, Michael Stebbins says what most scientists and politicians are afraid to about what research can and, perhaps more importantly, cannot deliver. He debunks the myths surrounding some of the most controversial topics in science.


Now available in paperback following huge critical acclaim. In a frank, edgy and entertaining style that pulls no punches, Michael Stebbins says what most scientists and politicians are afraid to about what research can and, perhaps more importantly, cannot deliver. He debunks the myths surrounding some of the most controversial topics in science.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Reviews for Hardback Version:

'Gutsy and in-your-face, Stebbins talks about science like it's never been talked about before. Prepare to be offended...and enlightened.' - Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science

'A take-no-prisoners look at some of the most controversial issues of our generation.' Gina Smith, author of The Genomics Age

'A science meets political polemic that travels at breakneck speed - a real eye-popper. Well worth a look.' -

'FOUR STARS: If you enjoy reading Michael Moore, you will want to read this book too. Without doubt, a book that anyone who really wants science to succeed should read.' -

'Stebbins makes a good argument and his style is lively and irreverent. He knows what he's talking about too.' - Focus Magazine

'You will undoubtedly learn something new from this sobering, illuminating work.' - Publishers Weekly

'Stebbins breaks ranks to passionately, revealingly, counter the threats posed by general American stupidity about science, public health, and education.' - Booklist

'You don't need a scientific background to be totally enthralled by this passionate, entertaining and sometimes terrifying book' - Chemistry World

'devilish, funny, outspoken, revealing, and entertaining,' - Lab Times

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Palgrave Macmillan US
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Macmillan Science Series
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6.10(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.04(d)

Read an Excerpt

Sex, Drugs and DNA

Science's Taboos Confronted

By Michael Stebbins


Copyright © 2006 Michael Stebbins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-55226-5


a scientist's life

Forget everything you think you know about science and scientists. It's a bunch of crap. Before we dive into the controversies that surround science, I am going to give you a peek into the making of a typical modern biologist. This is important because without some context of what scientists do, it is hard to understand how they must feel about the current denial and misuse of science to push social and political agendas. I will focus shamelessly on the US for one simple reason: the US is a scientific goliath. It produces about the same number of scientific papers per year as all of Europe combined. Some 63% of the top 1% of all research papers in the biological sciences, measured by citation, are produced in the US. Simply put, the US produces more science that is cited more often by other scientists than the rest of the world. There is no significant biomedical research being published in any language other than English. Good science is being done elsewhere; there is just more of it being done in the States.

In the beginning

A budding biological scientist is faced with a major decision at some point in her undergraduate years: do I want to be a physician or do I go into research? Looking around the classroom and seeing the spreading plague of premeds is an unsettling experience for those who are born to question. Our future scientist finds herself liking the rigor of physics classes and organic chemistry. She loathes the grade whores who crowd professors at the end of class. She might even be tempted to do a little grade whoring herself, but feels uncomfortable with it. But very few labs will take undergraduate freshmen and sophomores in. They are seen as being too young, inexperienced and unreliable. Meantime, they must endure their colleagues' shallowness and eke out an education in classes designed for premeds.

Scientists are born in the lab. It is there that an undergraduate is expected to learn quickly and accomplish something. Scientists do not get extra credit for having undergrads in their labs and no one gives them significant grant money to spend their time with undergrads. It is the place where the coddling of high school and the undergraduate classroom disappears. Students who are serious about learning how to do science will succeed in this environment. Those who are just looking to pad their resumes with another line and get themselves a letter of recommendation for medical school will rarely contribute anything significant and typically don't last more than a semester.

There is no golden path of social and economic avarice laid out for scientists. They get the bug for research out of curiosity and a drive to do something that no one else has ever done. While somewhat misguided, the thrill of your first experimental results is like crack to a future scientist. Studying and jockeying for grades will be shed for a passion for experimentation.

Our student has now decided that she has no desire to stitch wounds, prescribe blood pressure medication or provide strippers with bust enhancement surgery. Instead, she finds herself spending more and more time in the lab and decides that getting a PhD in biomedical sciences is her path in life. Instead of six figures' worth of debt, she can get a free education ... actually, tuition is free and she will get paid to go to graduate school. No annoying patients and no old people complaining about their gout, and you get pocket money instead of debt – where do you sign up? The promises of graduate school sound like an ad for the military, and might be nearly as divisive. 'Pay' is really a bit of an exaggeration for what students are actually getting for their effort. In reality, they will earn less than minimum wage per hour. Their salary is often not enough to pay the bills, requiring student loans or money borrowed from family to make up the difference.

At some institutions, graduate students are the primary source of research results and thus bring in the bulk of the money. Research results equal grants. At many universitiesand institutions, a great deal of the university rides on the money brought in by biomedical research grants. Few realize that the philosophy, history and other humanities departments at universities don't bring in a lot of dough. When a biomedical researcher brings in a grant, a percentage of the grant goes directly to the university for 'overhead' costs. This can be more than half of the grant, which pretty much sucks. What that means is that science research floats the nonprofitable departments and in many cases is the only reason they can persist. Professors in these departments are often paid as much as biomedical researchers – sometimes more. A close look at many universities reveals that the highest-paid faculty staff are often the ones who have been there the longest and brought in the least money. There is no greater waste of time, money and space than a professor emeritus at a university who is taking a paycheck but not contributing to the department he is in. These professors don't teach much or bring in money, but can draw big salaries. Perhaps they will write a book of the collected wisdom of a career in academia. That's certainly valuable right? Not usually. When these books are written, the income from them goes right into the professors' pockets, so it doesn't subsidize their salary, and the books usually fall somewhere between stuffy and sucky (with a handful of notable exceptions). Advice to university administrators – burn the dead wood.

So, our student applies to grad school and is off to a life as an academic researcher. All is well – her parents can brag that she is curing cancer and she will lead a comfortable life ... Right? Wrong! The hurdles are now lined up and chances are she won't make it to the end of the race. First is graduate school. Getting into a good graduate program is key, because a PhD from Podunk U. is virtually useless. To get into a good graduate program, a student will obviously have to have a combination of good grades and admissions test scores. But she will also have to have significant research experience and will have to have actually proven that she is competent in the lab. The best way to show an admittance committee that you are competent enough to succeed is to have a recommendation by a respected researcher. Most grad school applicants don't have authorship on research papers, so a written description of the project that they worked on and the recommendation is what they have to rely on. If one does undergraduate research in the lab of a big-time scientist, then more weight will be given to the recommendation. This is not by design – it is just human nature. If those sitting on the committee know the recommender, the recommendation will be trusted and the student will be given a close look. This again shows that the undergraduate institution is key: Dr Big-Time Scientist is unlikely to be working at Podunk's sister school out in rural Nebraska.

Let the games begin

Once in graduate school, the new student will settle in for a year of what is best described as hazing. A typical grad student will have to split her time taking classes, studying for tests, teaching undergraduate classes, and doing research as a rotation student for the first year. It should be noted that this is likely to be the only teaching experience she will ever have before she is actually required to organize and teach lectures to large classrooms of students as an assistant professor. It is completely normal for a first-year student to leave before 8 in the morning and not come home until 11 or 12 at night. As a rotation student (or 'roton'), the student spends several months working in a lab on a project. The purpose of the rotation is similar to that of medical school rotations. They are an opportunity for the student to decide if the particular research projects going on in the lab are best suited for them and whether they will be able to work with the particular personalities in that lab – most importantly the primary investigator, or PI, who is running the lab. At the same time, the rotation serves as a long job interview for the student. The PI and the people in the lab are judging not only how well the student does science, but whether the person's personality jibes well with that of the lab. After all, the student is likely to spend 5–6 years or more working in that lab – the longest and biggest career commitment that the student has ever made.

Our grad student teaches a laboratory class associated with a larger lecture class, which is in turn taught by a professor. She serves as a teaching assistant for that class, running review sessions, giving practical lectures, grading tests and homework and holding office hours during which premed students will try to suck out information on what will be on the test. The very students that she shared classes with just three months earlier as an undergraduate are now coming to her for information.

During this first year she will also have to take classes. It is pretty normal for grad programs to require their students to get a minimum of a B in any class they take. Sometimes these classes are taken with medical students, who at this point have gone through a welcome transition where they are more comfortable that they are going to become doctors. But our itinerant roton is torn. She feels some responsibility to her grades, but is pressured to spend as much time as she can in her rotation labs doing research, learning new techniques and impressing her rotation PIs. She also feels a responsibility to her own students, but more often than not, if someone is going to suffer, it is the undergrads, who will have little to say about what happens to the roton in the coming months.

The devotion of scientists is rarely in question. What is in question is what they are devoted to. Scientists will suffer at the hands of their own passion and drive for their entire career. Relationships suffer in particular, and the first year of grad school should be an eye opener to budding scientists that something is not right. Relationships come and go in everyone's life, but what is interesting amongst scientists is that devotion to the craft of being a scientist is a primary reason for relationships to crumble. If there is anything wrong with your relationship when you enter grad school, the pressure and long hours will bring it right to the surface. Those students who are not in relationships will often hook up with their fellow students, who can at least empathize with the new lifestyle that they have entered. Still others, despite being expressly forbidden from doing so, wind up dating their undergraduate students. This is actually more common than people would suspect, and there is little that grad schools can do to prevent it. Every graduate student knows a colleague who has dated one of their students – or worse, a professor. This too is strictly forbidden at all universities, but it happens all the time. Some universities have made concessions to situations where a student and faculty member can see each other as long as the faculty member has no say over the student's fate. Here's an interesting example.

In 2003, Arnie Levine, the president of Rockefeller University, was dismissed from his position and lambasted in the New York Times for dating a graduate student at the University. Dr Levine is a well-respected member of the research community whose life's work was rewarded with a prestigious position at the University in 2000. What was his crime? He showed up in a public place with his girlfriend, who, by the nature of his position, was someone he should not have had an intimate relationship with. Unofficially, there were a series of events that had led up to his dismissal, but what the New York Times failed to report was that this sort of relationship happens at universities all the time. They also missed the fact that these relationships are tolerated as long as faculty members and teaching assistants can maintain a reasonable level of plausible denial. Many research institutes have gone so far as to settle harassment cases out of court to save face and preserve the careers of professors who have had inappropriate relationships. In the absence of complaints, it is more typical for universities to turn a blind eye to these indiscretions. Dr Levine removed the element of plausible deniability, thus risking embarrassment to the university, and lost his job because of it.

Once our roton has made it through her first year without engaging in an inappropriate relationship, has found a lab and is starting a project, she will settle into her new life as an indentured servant. Different graduate schools have different policies regarding what is required of a student to receive a PhD. It is fairly common for a student to work on a project for a year and then submit a proposal for a thesis project. At this point the student will put together a committee of professors from the university and perhaps one from an outside university. In effect, the student has a primary advisor (the primary investigator for the lab she is working in) and a committee of other professors who must approve both the student's proposal and ultimately her final thesis. The committee serves two capacities. First, it provides advice to the student on a range of topics, such as experimental design and how to deal with an unreasonable thesis advisor. Second, the committee members serve as advocates for the student so that the advisor cannot hold the student hostage in graduate school for too long or ask her to do anything that they perceive as unreasonable. Sounds like a good system right? Bzzz! Sorry, thank you for playing. We have some nice parting gifts for you.

The committee members do indeed serve as effective advisors for experimental design and will generally give the student good advice on achieving success in the research project. However, when a student has a personal or professional problem with their advisor, the committee is usually powerless to do anything about it. Strike that – the committee isn't actually powerless. It's impotent. The committee would like to do something about an advisor who is being unreasonable, but many times cannot do anything because if they do dare strong-arm the primary investigator, they risk putting themselves in a bad position with a fellow faculty member. This is particularly true of committee members who happen to be junior faculty looking to get tenure in the coming years. There are of course exceptions, but this is usually the case. So our student, in many cases, will feel like she is out there on her own. The system is set up so that students go through a stage where they feel helpless and under-appreciated, and see no end in sight.

There is a honeymoon period in which our young scientist and her new advisor will work well together. Everything is new and potential abounds. It is in the best interests of advisors to get as much as they can from students once they are productive in the lab. This translates into research papers. Most schools require their students to have at least one research publication before they graduate; some require two or three. This is so that the students can be competitive in getting grants as post-doctoral fellows and to make sure that the lab and institution are getting something out of the students they train. What this does in effect is ensure that most students take projects that are likely to succeed and in most cases will be of little consequence to their field. In essence, they do boring work to ensure success.

The situation is quite simple. The currency of biomedical research is the research paper. There is an adage in science: publish or perish. There could be no truer words. Most researchers' salaries are paid from research grants. Some are paid by foundation grants or venture capital money dumped into the little biotech company they have on the side, but the overwhelming majority are paid with taxpayer dollars through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation or other government-supervised trough. The funding system is set up so that only about 7–12% of research grants submitted are actually funded by the NIH, and this has become tougher over the last couple of years. Writing these grant applications is a time-consuming, frustrating and ultimately unrewarding process. I say unrewarding, because the scientist gets very little scientifically from the process – except money of course. Assuming, that is, that they successfully navigate the process. It can take weeks of solid work to put together an NIH grant, weeks that could be spent more productively if the process wasn't so competitive and if the grants themselves weren't so bureaucratically complicated and unbelievably detailed – 40 pages of written material is not uncommon.


Excerpted from Sex, Drugs and DNA by Michael Stebbins. Copyright © 2006 Michael Stebbins. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mike Stebbins is the Director of Biology Policy for the Federation of American Scientists and a former US Congressional Fellow in Science Policy. Before that he was a senior editor at Nature Genetics after being a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He has written for Reuters, and numerous scientific journals and has appeared on NPR's All Things Considered. He is an advisor to ScienCentral, a National Science Foundation funded science TV news feed that goes out on the ABC and NBC affiliates and is based in New York. For more information on Dr. Stebbins and the book go to

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