Laugh or Cry? Relative Size of 2016 Enacted Budgets

Ever wonder just how much money the United States Government allocated toward the endeavors of its different agencies during 2016, and how they compare?  Here’s the answer!

The comic below represents the 2016 Enacted Budgets of fifteen different U.S. government agencies, each with a very different mission.


[Note that Requested and Enacted Budgets are not necessarily the same figure.]

Highlights for 2016: 

Defense spending amounts to one-and-a-half times more money than that spent on all other agencies combined.

The entire NIH is valued at just 80% of the Department of Homeland Security, in terms of funding.

The Department of Defense budget was more than eight times larger than all the money allocated towards the Department of Education.

Defense spending amounts to more than five times more money than the total spent on NASA, the NSF, the NIH, the CDC, the National Parks Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey and the EPA all put together.

The budget for the National Science Foundation is equivalent to only 1.2 % of the defense budget — but — it is still fifty times larger than the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.

But wait! There’s more! Despite the fluctuating tone of the blah-blah-blahbitty-blah that has issued forth from the different Administrations over the years … government spending on research has not meaningfully changed since 1982!  Check it out — it’s been flat-lined for the last 35 years. (Here’s even finer-scale data from the AAAS).

Do your students know this stuff? Do your elected representatives? Feel free to use everything here as a #scicomm tool.  Oh and did you like this comic?  Yeah? … then why not take a look at the others?

Here’s Me Gynosplaining My Latest NYT Piece

My latest NYT piece appeared yesterday, and in the last 12 short hours since then, I have been bombarded with email from Agricultural Economists, Agribusinessmen, Deep Thinkers (“what do we mean by ‘farm’, anyway?”), Angry-men-sans-affiliation, as well as my usual helping of incoherent threats of sexual violence that pepper the epistolarity of Women With Opinions On The Internet.

You’d be amazed at the number of people (all men so far) who stayed up late last night writing to explain to me that FARMING IS JUST FINE.  IT’S FINE.  IT’S ALL FINE.

Which is all very well and good except NOPE IT’S NOT FINE. My work in plant biology and environmental science has me worried about (among other things) the very high rates of food waste and food-intake-related chronic disease in America, and I don’t think that we’ll ever make progress on these issues until agriculture joins the conversation as a primary driver.  Also, the nonsensical nature of burning fuel in gas tanks to grow and harvest corn, in order to ferment the corn into fuel, that we then burn in gas tanks — should be recognized for the Möbius strip that it is.

Disclosure: my family has never farmed, though I had a grandfather who slaughtered hogs for a living, and who used to periodically threaten to move the family ‘up north’ and take up potato farming, whilst waving the tattered deed to five acres north of St. Cloud.  This threat was enough to strike fear deep into the hearts of his wife and children, which included my mother — which is to say that farming has never been easy.  I am very grateful to the farmers that have taken the time to share their lives with me over the course of my education, and the ones that continue to do so through the email.  Perhaps they are not representative of all farmers, but that’s the nature of interpersonal relationships.

A lot of readers also told me that I make them have a sad whenever I write, and why must that be?  To this I respond, welp, looking back on the past is an inherently melancholy practice, as is driving long distances while you’re hungry.  For what it’s worth, I am always somehow cheered by a joke told to me since I was a child, and probably to others for decades before that:

A farmer wins the lottery.  

The news station asks him what he’s going to do with the money. 
He answers, “Oh I’ll probably just keep farming until it’s all gone.”

I believe that there will always be a group of patriots driven to feed their fellow citizens.  I think it’s a relic trait from the earliest human communities, part of a yearning to take care of each other.  The amount of crap that these patriots will put up with for the privilege of serving is astonishing, as we’ve seen decade after decade since the dawn of time.  I’m not a farmer and I don’t pretend to know how farmers “should” vote, but I do believe that it makes sense to address farming interests seriously and comprehensively during, what was after all, a campaign for the highest political office in the nation. We didn’t see this in 2016, and we haven’t seen it for more than a decade.


Do you have a super-angry response to this? For Heaven’s sake, get thee over to the comments section of this blog without delay!

Upon Losing Spock Last Friday

I remember the first time that Spock died. It was 1982 and I was a teenager. My brothers and I gasped as his coffin was shot into orbit during the final scene of The Wrath of Khan. Like most fans, we left the movie theater in shock, but also incredulous. They wouldn’t kill off Spock, would they? The fact that director Nicholas Meyer even dared to experiment with such an idea felt like a dangerous betrayal. As fans, we endured two full years of wondering whether the loss would stick.

Leonard Nimoy knew us well. It was he who directed the sequel to the above, released in 1984: one-hundred and five full minutes of The Search for Spock. Kirk and the rest of his crew, feeling as we did, stole the Enterprise from spacedock and risked everything to bring Spock back to us. They succeeded, we all forgave Paramount, and Spock was with us on the big screen for twenty-eight more years. No, the all-powerful Hollywood with its million-dollar special effects couldn’t kill off Spock. Indeed, in the end it was nothing less than God himself that could take Spock away from us.

Spock was such a popular character that Star Trek waited twenty-six years and 354 episodes before it tried to put another Vulcan on the bridge. In 1995, we met Tuvok (Captain Janeway’s head security officer) and eventually came to love him, though we never regarded him with quite the reverence in which we held Spock. And after all, even hard-core Trekkies like me will acknowledge reluctantly that the show was, in fact, fictional. Just like with The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island and I Love Lucy and almost everything else on television in the 1960s, we knew that the Enterprise and her crew weren’t real. But there was something about Star Trek that seemed so tantalizingly possible that it became to us a vision of the world that we wanted.

Spock is the scientist that I thought I would become. Maybe I wouldn’t look like the rest of the team, or even act like them, but everyone would still believe my solutions. Maybe I didn’t have big muscles and couldn’t fight anyway, but I would still get to go along on every mission, and once in a while it would be me who would save the day. This is not what I became. Spock is also the scientist that I thought I would meet. Someone who would listen more than talk, and be detached and objective. Someone who could set aside ego and emotion in order to focus more clearly on Why. A teacher or colleague who wanted to touch me, but only to transfer information back and forth from my mind. This is not who I met. Instead, I think that Spock’s world is closer to the version of Science that I am still hoping to create. A world where we work with engineers and communicators and doctors and leaders and their security forces not as consultants, but as companions – valued, trusted, forgiven and understood. But most importantly, a world of Science with a place right up front for those who are different. I finally understand why Star Trek was set in 2260 and not any nearer.

Who hasn’t wanted to reach into the grave and pull someone back? To make them understand the full magnitude of how they were loved, and to beg for their blessing one last time? A whole generation of scientists is grieving today, but mostly we will say nothing. We will go to our microscopes, to our telescopes, to our computers and laboratories while nursing a quiet ache. We will mostly not cry. But as Tuvok the Vulcan once said, “Do not mistake composure for ease.” Condole with us anyway. We are realizing that our adolescent adoration of Spock never left us because it was our very first experiment in loving ourselves.

Goodbye Spock. Even a Vulcan who lives for hundreds of years can die too young. Goodbye Leonard Nimoy. I daresay you were loved far more than you knew.

How I Learned to Trust The Needle

Recently, a millennial came to my office and asked me if she should get vaccinated, even though her mom had never wanted her to.  I didn’t tell her what to do.  Instead, I told her why I vaccinate my own son.  Here’s what I said.


How I Learned to Trust The Needle

When my son was a couple of months old, I took him to the third of his many well-baby appointments. On that day, our pediatrician approached me tentatively. “This is the appropriate time for his vaccinations,” she informed me in a cautious, even tone.

“Load him up!” I screamed, “Give him a double!” My baby son looked up at us and blinked, unperturbed by the hysterics to which he had become accustomed in utero. I signed some papers, and the doctor vaccinated him against an assortment of maladies. More than a decade has passed since then, and today I have a healthy kid whose only fault is that he mostly takes after me. I am thoroughly grateful, despite the fact that I am not quite sure whom to thank. He is ten years old.

My dad is ninety-one years old, and is equally healthy if not more so. He has concrete plans for becoming 92, and then eventually 102, and Heaven help any medical professional at the Mayo Clinic who isn’t working hard enough to make this happen. As per usual, my good fortune exceeds what I deserve, even to the fact that my father’s exquisite sense of humor has persisted fully intact. His jokes are simultaneously dry yet cheerful, derisive yet kind, ridiculous yet sensible — it is from the juxtaposition that I draw so much delight — and from the fact that I’m never really sure whether he’s putting me on.

My father, born in 1923, tells me stories. They start out fantastically, like the one about the two monkeys living in a concrete cell that served as the town’s “zoo” during the 30s (I never got a straight answer about where they went during the winter). It is uncanny, though, how every story ends on familiar ground: adults harangued children for listening to too much radio, warning that it would rot their minds; political slogans justifying the Second World War were mothballed and then employed verbatim for the Korean War and then trotted out again for the Viet Nam War. When my father tells stories about the past it seems that my life is always the ending, the purpose or the moral. He truly believes my generation to be on equal footing with his, and that our shared present represents a constellation of mistakes and problems that have been solved before and will be solved again.

My dad tells a story about when he was seven and his friend’s father (who had been in World War One) decided that it was high time for both boys to learn how to shoot a gun and specifically took them down to the elementary schoolyard to practice because it was the only place where you could be certain that you wouldn’t hit anybody’s horse. My father also tells about his first day of school in 1929, when only half of his class from the previous year showed up. The other half was being kept at home either by polio itself or by their mother’s terror of it. He keenly remembers being a frightened child helpless against a monstrous fear that had subjugated even the all-powerful grown-ups that seemed all to be speaking in hushed tones about 1916. My father goes on to tell about how happy he was in 1955 to learn that a polio vaccine would be available for his own children. And so in 1975, I stood in line and claimed my magic sugar cube while US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts shared orbit; the Space Race was finally over and we had all won. From my father’s perspective, vaccinating me was an act of love and care, of freely giving me something that he never got. And this is the core practice of parenting, or so I am learning. I often tell my son about my miserable month-long bout with chickenpox when I was twelve, and about how glad and grateful I am that he will not have to go through the same. For he is, of course, precious to me – just as precious as unvaccinated children are to their unconvinced mothers.

I am a laboratory chemist (more or less) whose original techniques have found a serendipitous utility within medical research. When I first began to apply for funding from the National Institutes of Health, my then-institution required me to take an extensive online course in human subjects research ethics. Eager to do anything that might lead to funding, I launched into many hours designed to impress upon me the significance and necessity of the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki, which is the international standard document of ethical principles for medical research. Within that course I learned about the horrible, almost inconceivable, abuses in medical research that have taken place in America, from Tuskegee to Davenport, from Holmesburg Prison to the Stanford Prison. And not as any Wikipedia summary, either, I had to learn the details — the design of these experiments and the sad goals under pursuit – how rationale had been misguided and then transfigured by madness time and again. “Holy Hell,” I remember thinking to myself, “You’d have to be out of your tree to agree to participate in medical research in this country.” During the next several years, however, my alarm was tempered by real-life interactions with medical researchers at three different institutions, all of whom have won my unqualified trust, respect and admiration, and some of whom suffer me to call them at any hour of the day or night while we strive quixotic to address what feels like an insurmountable problem: America’s sugar addiction.

Lately I’ve been dismayed to see that in response to the recent measles outbreaks, Science communicators have launched an energetic campaign attempting to shame and/or guilt parents (particularly mothers) into vaccinating their children, to ostracize unvaccinated children from public and private institutions and to generally slander the intellect of anyone who dares to publicly mistrust the science of vaccination. Now, I don’t claim to be some sort of sci-comm expert or anything, but I do know that this approach will not work. How do I know that? Because people are constantly going around telling me what to do, and I respond by go around never doing any of it. When I actually do do things, there’s a pattern. I do what has been consistently modeled for me by the people whom I trust. I’ve internalized this trust as learning and concrete benefits have come to me by way of its application. In contrast, I see no benefit in further alienating the people in whom Science has made no such effort to foster trust, particularly while the stakes are so very high.

Science’s self-righteous disdain towards what we deem to be ignorance is an expression of our fear. It is posturing meant to protect us from what we dare not face: that the public’s mistrust is something that we have earned. In no arena has mistrust been more fully earned than within medical research, with egregious examples occurring even in our present century. The true pity is that although desperate malignity within scientific research is extremely rare, Science routinely reinforces the public’s mistrust with our everyday foibles — by talking down to people, by excluding people, by sending mixed signals while seeking attention, by not insisting upon subtlety and complexity from the journalists who interview us. To actually address why parents opt out of vaccinations, Science must ask itself difficult and uncomfortable questions about why such a large and fundamental trust-gap exists, and what we plan to do about it.

I trust Science because I am consistently exposed to its best side. As a research scientist, I interact daily with women and men who are working very hard for very little, in decades-long pursuit of dreams that, with luck, might come true once in a century. For my part, I know only the basics of how vaccines work, but my direct life experiences make me confident that the testing of these vaccines and the scrutiny of their results are conducted with the same care and integrity that was hammered into me during my scientific training. I willingly and eagerly vaccinate my child because I trust that the needle delivers 0.25 cc of the best of what our generation is capable, though my eyes are also open to the damage that medical science has wrought. The world that my father grew up in was plagued by many ills – war, hunger, injustice — and most of them are still with us. Polio is not. The polio vaccine, the smallpox vaccine, the measles vaccine, the whooping cough vaccine, the chickenpox vaccine, and the rest, are more than medicine: they are the precious few concrete examples of how we can rise as a people, and how Science is most noble when it labors in the tradition of that rising. Every year, I honor that tradition first by vaccinating my son, and then by returning to my lab to work yet another long day.


Do you wish to obtain vaccinations? This site can help you figure out where to go, and how much it will cost (if anything). 

In Defense of The Trigger Warning

Note: this post is triggering. Are you sure that you want to read it right now? 


In Defense of The Trigger Warning

Getting triggered is no fun. The first place that I feel it is in the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet as the initial shock wears off and an inflammation feedback cycle begins. The extremities of my hands and feet begin to burn and itch and flush bright red. I’ve come to recognize this odd sensation as a harbinger of further symptoms, which never fail to materialize. My reaction progresses into a sickening onslaught of anxiety, as if my nervous system had been torn out of my body and relocated naked to the surface of my skin. I feel as if I were seconds away from taking a prolonged oral exam in a subject that I have never studied in front of a panel of Supreme Court judges whose verdict will decide my fate as to the guillotine that restrains me, even while my mind is lucidly aware that this is hardly the case. Left unabated, my panic can cascade until it becomes “unmanageable,” to parrot a canonical clinical understatement. In order to disrupt the cascade, I take a low-dose of prescription alpha-blocker that incites sleep, which somehow serves to reboot my neural hard drive. This is good because I’ll eventually wake up more or less ready to face a new day on my own terms.

I know right? It sucks. It interferes with deadlines, teaching, driving, getting to little league on time – you-name-it. The arguably biggest part of the reason that it sucks so bad centers around my inability to accurately predict when and where I might be dealing with the experience described above. Rationally, I understand that because I was in abject terror once a long time ago, my body over-anticipates danger in the naive hope of ensuring my future safety absolutely. Unfortunately for me, this rational understanding of the process cannot, in itself, make it stop – and so I must merely try to manage my reaction until it passes. It happens less and less as the years go by, so that’s good anyway. Every survivor is a unique individual and the triggering process is equally specific. I can’t speak to anybody else’s symptoms or experience, no matter how similar our trauma, but I sure as hell can speak about mine. If you happen to know of a sure-fire better way to manage the above, then I’m all ears. My own method is the result of more than a decade of deliberate trial and error governed by trustworthy medical input.

I am similar to a lot of survivors in that descriptions of sexual violence and its aftermath – even rather clinical ones – are reasonably likely candidates for triggering. But then again, not always. Here’s something that you may find puzzling: there’s this short story that I read about once a year (“Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson). I’m not necessarily suggesting that you read it; I just provided the link as reference. Trust me when I tell you that it can hold its own against snuff pornography in terms of its Trigger Index. It includes first-person descriptions of starvation, homelessness, sexual violence and involuntary abortion. It is also the most novel, daring and skilled writing that I’ve ever read concerning climate change. It’s a narrative of apocalyptic environmental deterioration that explores the potential for disastrous social consequences specific to women’s lives. Maybe I keep reading it because I am a perverse and obsessive masochist. Maybe I read it because it is an exceptional piece of literature that also triggers an explosion of imagination that made me view Global Change in a whole new light. Maybe both. I will not stop reading it because what I gain from it out-balances the price that its reading exacts. I do not include it on the syllabus for my course on Global Change, and I feel somewhat conflicted about this. I can’t quite figure out how to write an appropriate trigger warning and until I do, I’ll teach a different text.

Some apparently believe that trigger warnings encourage survivors to indulge themselves in trauma-avoidance. In fact, I’ve read more than one article that comes dangerously close to suggesting that getting triggered is actually therapeutic for survivors. To this I respond, “LOL if only it were that easy!” The truth is that trigger warnings empower me. They give me a precious modicum of control over when and where I may anticipate the symptoms that I described within the first paragraph of this post. This is of great value to me. My placement of this value does not reflect a belief that it is the world’s responsibility never to trigger me. Indeed, I believe that trigger warnings are a courtesy. I also believe that you probably have no idea of the true depth of my gratitude when this courtesy is extended to me. Have you ever felt bad about sexual violence and wondered what you could do about it? Idea: you can put a goddam trigger warning on the sensitive materials that you request others to read. It won’t hurt the people who don’t need it, and it might slightly smooth the rocky ground that some of us must traverse indefinitely. It is a gift that, for whatever crazy messed-up reason, you have the power to give. Will you give it? I fear that I’ll sound like a postmodern cliché when I tell you that writing a post about triggering is in itself sort of triggering, but it will serve to explain why you won’t find me yukking it up on Twitter for a bit. If you’re reading this, I weighed the pros and cons, and then decided to go ahead and post. Because that’s what my life is when it comes to the topic of sexual violence. Because constantly evaluating the trade-off between bodily risk and uncertain gain is what women’s lives are.


Heaven knows that the internet hasn’t been stingy in its supply of discussion as to the legitimacy of the trigger warning.  Everybody and his brother have an opinion about it, ranging from the New Republic to the NYT to the AAUP, each of whom have graced us with their cyber-statements.  I wrote this because no where within this raging verbstorm can I find a convincing description of triggering, which (for me) is a physiological phenomenon.  And I think it matters.

An Open Letter from Your Kid’s College Professor

It’s Finals Week and academia’s annual Festival-of-Regret has officially begun! I am celebrating this year by finally writing the letter to my students’ parents that I wish I had written a long time ago, in the hopes that it might do someone some good. Within it, I’ll employ the feminine pronoun “she” liberally, but all my advice applies to the parents of any student. Incidentally, if my use of “her” jars you, it sure as hell shouldn’t because the enrollment of US colleges has been more than 50% female since the 1980s. Just sayin’.

An Open Letter from Your Kid’s College Professor

Hi there. We haven’t formally met, but I get paid to hang out with your kid. Chances are, you’re paying a sh*tload for the favor, and although shockingly little of it goes to me, I care more than you might think. You see, this ain’t my first ride on the finals ferris wheel. I’ve been in this job for twenty years; I’ve seen students both succeed and fail, often simultaneously and sometimes spectacularly. Ages 18-22 represent an interesting stage of human development. Just like with the earlier stages, there are milestones that are naturally passed during healthy development: between ages 0-1 a child learns to crawl, and so on. During young adulthood a child must take important steps towards self-sufficiency, and similar to the other stages, parental support (or lack thereof) makes all the difference. Towards this, I’m asking you to do five things for your child while she is at college.

  1. Give her some space. Higher learning takes time, and it takes energy. To do college right, your child will need to spend several hours each day sitting in the library and reading, or standing in a lab and experimenting (and that’s just two of the many examples I could put here). She may not be used to spending her time this way and so may have a hard time locating those hours and eliminating the activities that used to occupy them. I cannot overemphasize the following: if she doesn’t successfully find and use those hours, she will likely not do well and possibly even fail out. You are in the overwhelmingly important position of being able to give her those hours out of the time that you used to spend interacting with her. You can choose to give them freely or you can harness her into a yoke of guilt that she will carry for the rest of her life. When she lived at home, she participated in your daily life. At what level do you expect her to continue now that she lives elsewhere? I understand keenly that she is programmed to meet your expectations over mine, and you must also acknowledge this within your dynamics. How often must she visit? Which family events must she attend? Forgive this indelicate question: if you decide to get divorced while she’s in college (and I see this often), to what extent will you entrain her in the proceedings? Making these choices is your responsibility, as she is still relatively unskilled at setting boundaries. Note that you may also have to regulate the amount of space that her younger siblings give her, which means that you will have to make up for the attention that they are accustomed to receiving from her.
  1. Reinforce the fact that learning is her most important job. I am working hard to teach your child how to go recklessly overboard. Together we will do crazy things: We’ll read a single book over and over and then she’ll write (and rewrite) a ten page letter to me about one of the characters. We’ll drive a hundred miles just to see one big rock. She’ll grow intimate with the daily customs of people that lived centuries ago and which are now gone forever. I will lure her towards semi-impossible dreams like chasing the faint hope of a cure for an illness that very few (yet still too many) people will ever contract. Believe it or not, all of these things contribute to a supremely practical skill: during her life, your child will often see people go recklessly overboard for love, for money and for power. My job is to show her that going overboard for learning is also an option. I need you to reinforce my opinion that this is a worthy choice, which means that you must embrace her growing identity as an intellectual. Your relationship is no longer about what she eats or when she sleeps, it is about what she thinks about the world. Ask her which class is her favorite and why. Ask her to show you something that she figured out. Listen to her talk about it. For hours. Praise her work and tell her how proud you are, regardless of whether it was graded “C” or “A” – there is always victory in learning. Help her celebrate her intellectual maturation.
  1. Actively push her towards independence. This is the appropriate time for your child to learn to show up on time, pay her bills, fill out paperwork and meet her physical needs without help from you. One of the wonderful things about college is that it effectively provides training-wheels for many of these steps: food is prepared for you, but is only available at certain times; school is your job, but there’s a syllabus telling you what to do week by week in order to succeed. I’ll be blunt: we are all hoping that your child will outlive you, and Heaven forbid otherwise. Once you’re gone she will have to keep herself healthy and safe without any help from you. College is an appropriate time for you both to start working concertedly towards that goal. Does your child know what to do when she needs a ride somewhere, needs to secure birth control, needs to request an override? Her first recourse in these situations should not be to call you. When you get those calls, cheerfully chirp out, “Oh gosh honey, you’d know better than I would — I’m sure you can figure it out.” Then follow up and praise her for trying to do it independently, even if she screws it up.
  1. Try not to feed into the propensity to complain. We all love to complain, but students – if they aren’t careful – raise this to a high art. Unfortunately, this is also a skill that won’t do them any good in the long run. Your child probably feels compelled to carry on at length about how gross the dorm food is, how disgusting the bathrooms are, how her classes are too hard and her professors are just plain boring (and mean). I know you’re inclined the listen sympathetically, but it’s better for you to redirect the conversation into asking her what she does like about what she’s doing and learning. It’s only by long examination of her preferences that she will settle on a career path, and this is best done out loud and with good attitude. Please bear in mind that just because she doesn’t like a class, it doesn’t mean that she isn’t learning something useful, and it also doesn’t automatically preclude her from earning a decent grade. She’ll get more out of college if she approaches it positively – she’ll also be much more likely to finish her degree.
  1. Think about it, and then talk about it. Why not print out this post and go through it with your college-age kid over the holiday break? As was ever the case, you have far more influence over your child’s education than her teacher does. I am no substitute for a parent, nor will I ever attempt to be. You love her unconditionally for the person that she is, and I love only the things that I am teaching her to do. For the brief period while she is at college, she is both an adult and a child, growing in critical ways. Perhaps this means that we are raising a child together, you and I. It is one of the great privileges of my job to be able to contribute to her growth, but I need your help — we both do. She is your child, and she will never stop needing you. And now that she’s in college, she needs you more than ever.

If you liked this post you might like like to know Why I Love Science or see my Open Letter to Millennial Women. But maybe you should quit reading the web and go study for your finals.