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?

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). 

How to Turn A “Good” Proposal Into An “Excellent” Proposal in Eight Admittedly Arduous Steps

I’ve reviewed a lot of proposals lately and it has made me cranky, so here I am trying to teach the Hungry Man how to Fish and thus Eat for a Lifetime. I’ll be blunt: Have you been getting evaluations of “good” on your grant proposals? If yes, then you really need this information.

How to Turn A “Good” Proposal Into An “Excellent” Proposal in Eight Admittedly Arduous Steps

1. Do the Math.  You’ve already done the budget, right? Because budgeting work comes apart in your hands like dry f*cking cornbread, creating more and more crummy little tasks as you handle it until suddenly it’s done and you’re not totally sure what happened, but you do have an excel file with a grand total figure somewhere near the bottom. Write this big fat number on the back of your hand with a Sharpie and stare at it for a few days. You know what? That number represents a crapton of money by anyone’s standards. Divide that number by ten, or even a hundred. Now ask yourself, “What would it take to convince me to give someone that much of my money?” Uh-huh, I thought so. Listen: your proposal has to be well-nigh perfect to even have a chance of being discussed, let alone funded. Yes, proposal writing is the hardest part of the job, simply because there’s so much at stake for all parties concerned.  So get ready cause this is going to be slightly less fun than a goddam root canal.

2. Be Specific.  I don’t know about you, but before I give my money away, I want to be fully confident that the person I am giving it to has both a clue about what they’re doing and a plan for how to get there. Paragraphs explaining how Climate Change is Real or why Cancer is Bad are not helpful to me; if I am even considering giving you tens of thousands of dollars to study something then I probably believe it’s important even more than you do. What I want are the specifics of how you are going to get the question answered. I want to evaluate the details of your approach. You need to convince me that you’ve thought hard about it, considered your options, and visualized what success looks like from start to finish.

Let’s start with the Title. Here’s a sucky Title for a proposal:

“Characterization of Rat Vomit”

As a reviewer, I see this and think, Okay how about ‘rat vomit is gross?’ There, I just characterized it. Whoop-de-doo.

Here’s a better Title:

“Identification of Rare Amino Acids within Rat Vomit using Barfatron Energy Spectra”

As a reviewer, I see this and think, Golly, I didn’t know the Barfatron could do amino acids. Let’s see what the kids are up to in this one.

Note that the better Title states not only what you want to figure out, but how you propose to do it. Now I’m going to read your proposal in order to find out how many rats, how much puke, which amino acids and why those, how you correct for bile and saliva contamination, etc., etc. Ironically, we both know damn well that you won’t end up following this exact course of action, best-laid-plans and all, but proving to me that you can form a realistic plan is absolutely key.

3. Be Quantitative.  After you write anything, go back and replace all qualitative statements with quantitative ones. General Rule for All Scientific Writing: If it is worth taking up the space to say it, then it is worth saying precisely. Knowing and showing the numbers is basically the only thing that separates a Scientist from a Guy Selling Vitamins At The Mall. Both callings have their place, I suppose, but government agencies are better oriented towards funding the former.

Example time! Here’s a sucky Methods sentence:

“We will collect vomit from each rat in sufficient volume for analysis.”

Here’s a better version:

“Once a week during Year 2, a cohort of one hundred post-menopausal female rats will be monitored for pallor changes upon the administration of 150 mL of Woolworth’s ipecac solution. All esophageal expulsions produced during the twenty-four hours following the initialization of regurgitation will be collected within sterile 1L Lufthansa sick bags fastened to subjects’ ears using STAPLES’ staplers and staples.”

4. Tell Me Why Oh Why.  While your proposal’s Introduction has to be mighty short, it must argue in stringent terms that academia as we know it will come to a grinding halt unless someone does the work you propose. Tell about how you examined the shit out of the literature only to become aware of a gaping hole in the current state of knowledge even as it dawned on you that you – and really only you — are perfectly set up to rectify this serious collective intellectual oversight.

Get it? Here’s a sucky Introduction sentence:

“Numerous studies have characterized the inorganic acids in rat vomit [refs. 1-8], but to our knowledge, no work has been performed to identify rare amino acids.”

Here’s a better version:

“The chemistry of rat vomit remains the gold standard for diagnosis of tummy health, a measure of wellness that can be usefully extrapolated to every organism that has ever lived [ref. 1]. My survey of the literature revealed that amino acid concentrations seldom exceeded 99.9 kg/ml in both pre- and post-menopausal rat vomit [refs. 2-9]. These studies, though current, did not incorporate the contribution of rare amino acids, as their detection has only been made possible by recent advances in Barfatron technology. My previous work has demonstrated exhaustively within other contexts how rare amino acids actually control the whole damn world [refs. 10-12]. Here I propose to definitively quantify the contribution of rare amino acids to rat vomit across menopausal status, thus making possible a new definition of rat nausea, integrated across an energy spectrum ranging from gamma to radio waves.”

5. Consider The Funder’s Objectives.  Newsflash: Funding agencies don’t give away money just to experience the Rockwellian charm of playing Santa Klaus. The agencies, as well as those in their service, are actually trying to accomplish something. To get funding, you not only have to convince reviewers that you’re competent, you must also convince the agencies that you represent the wisest possible investment towards meeting their objectives. The only way to get a clear idea of what the program’s objectives are is to call or visit the Program Manager and ask her (or him, I guess) directly. She’ll start out by saying, “It’s simple: We want to fund the best science,” but keep her talking and you’ll eventually hear things like, “Wow, I’ve heard a lot of buzz over rare amino acids, tell me more,” or perhaps, “Yeah, but so much of the Barfatron work that we funded in the 1990s proved to be a dead-end.” These conversations are invaluable when you are deciding which grants to apply for. Writing a fundable proposal is a huge task, you can’t just shot-gun towards every solicitation you see, it just ain’t gonna work. You need to get feedback about your idea’s fit before you start, and that’s where talking to the Program Manager comes in.

6. Write it Well.  Okay, now you have to make all that super specific arcane shit interesting to read. The better written it is, the more of the proposal the reviewer will actually read. More reading equals more chance at gaining an informed review and useful suggestions. Beware of joining multiple PI grants where each “writes her/his own section” and then someone stacks it into a 15-page science Jenga: such piles usually collapse into rejectionland before they even hit the panel. It’s simply inescapable that near to the deadline, one of the PIs has to take the reigns for at least three days and read the whole thing out loud a few times to make sure that it flows well and makes sense. And they must also format it beautifully, with at least one dazzling figure or colorful illustration per page – which looks a lot better than any whole page of monolithic black text. Sound like too much work? Then let’s do some more math! Take the grand total dollar figure and divide it by 15 pages, and guess what, that’s how much money each page of your writing thinks it deserves. Ask your journalist friends how much they get paid per page. Upshot: proposal writing has to be the best writing of your career.

7. Gird Your Loins.  Steel yourself for a long haul, because most grants will have to go around at least two times. It’s rather like the revision process with a manuscript in that it’s quite rare when something gets accepted without any revisions. Odds are that your reviewers are going to have expertise very close to your own and the funding agency is counting on them to help you tweak your proposal into a plan with the maximum likelihood to succeed. As with papers, the objective is not to get past the reviewers, it is to learn something from them. The best way to show that you’ve done this is to include an explicit boxed paragraph before the Introduction stating how any revised proposal has been changed due to input gained during the previous cycle. Mayhaps thusly:

“Within the previous version of this proposal, Panelist #1 objected strongly to our request for one large yacht within which to sail rats back and forth between Oxnard and Catalina Island as a method for triggering seasickness prior to actual vomit collection. In this version, we have reduced costs drastically by substituting four semesters of support for one RA who will spend 10 hrs/wk sharply kicking each rat in the solar plexus until a glassy-eyed retching posture is achieved, in keeping with the suggestion of Panelist #2 that we ‘hit the little f*ckers until they blow chunks’.”

8. Don’t Lose Hope.  Buck up because it’s probably going to be okay. If you can get just one decent-sized grant before you go up for tenure, that may be enough; it sure will be if I’m reviewing your file. If you can get into the habit of writing two good grant proposals each year, you’ll improve rapidly with each cycle and likely get there in time. I’ll say it again: always talk to the Program Manager before writing, tell her your idea and pour your heart out. And remember that even though you’re an expert, you still have an awful lot to learn.

Guess what I’m psychic! Lots of people are going to say that the above advice is sort of good but also sort of wrong and that I should have instead specified x, y and z. The people who say that should go write their own blog posts and specify x, y and z. Then they should tweet me so that I can read & RT them.

And just in case someone is still reading, I feel moved to gripe about how I really, really hate the words “Characterization” and “Implications” to the point that I wish that they had never been invented by the Greeks or Lats or whatever, both being so vague as to be utterly useless. I don’t care how you ‘characterize’ something, I want to know what you measured. I don’t care what you think the ‘implications’ are, I want to know what you claim this means. For cripes sake, quit dancing around and say something, so I can either agree or disagree with you and we can both move on with our lives.

Fortunately for the world at large, I have lots more unsolicited advice to give out, such as what you should do after you get tenure, what to say about climate change, whether or not to have a baby and how to make cheese.  You also can’t comment on this page and here’s why.

My 2-page Comic Book on “The Five Stages of Post-Graduate Academia”

Here’s some deep wisdom for ya!

My 2-page comic book on The Five Stages of Post-Graduate Academia (1.5 Mb)

Can you print it? Yes you can! I bought all the photos from Dreamstime with my own allowance money, fair and square.

And why the hell not read all my other comic books?

About the images: I usually feature waxy-looking photos of women in my comics, but this time I sprung the extra buck for men. Switchin’ it up! 

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Quite frequently nowadays, other professors ask me if they should be on Twitter.  “This is kind of sad,” I think to myself, “How did we get to the point where I’m giving computer advice?”  I’ve decided to generously make my opinions available.  Here they are right in front of your very eyeballs. 

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Twitter is like a river.  It’s a river of information flowing by.  Some of the information is important.  Some of it isn’t.  Twitter can be a clear and pure mountain stream and it can also be a rank and fetid conduit of human sewage.  It can be all of these things at the same time.  Every day I go down to the river and toss a few rocks in.  They mostly disappear under the surface without ceremony.  Once in a great while I make a small splash.  Every day I get a little wet down at the river, which can be kind of refreshing.

“Join the Conversation!” commands Twitter, and we obligingly comply.  “Where does all this Conversation go?” you might ask me.  Well, it flows down the Mighty River of Sh*t into the Great Ocean of Oblivion.  The whole process takes about eight seconds (at most).  Supposedly you can go dredge the ocean years later and relocate any drop of water you care to, no matter how random it was.  This means that Victoria Beckham might one day contact me and ask to see my Baby Spice Dance, which I never had the chance to make public before I got on Twitter.  It also means that I may someday be taken to task for the disparaging generalizations I’ve made about #heterotrophs, who can be disappointingly sore losers in a metabolism-based #smackdown.  Like a lot of other things in life, Twitter can be as much or as little as you want it to be.  No, Twitter probably won’t help you organize your desk drawers or lower your cholesterol but it is particularly good for a few things.

Twitter is useful for five things:

1.  Meeting people.  You will inevitably meet people on Twitter because there’s always somebody down at the river — day or night, rain or snow, Christmas Eve or Thermonuclear Doomsday.  People meet their soulmates on Twitter.  They meet their deranged stalkers as well, and every imaginable scenario in between.  Twitter is great for combatting isolation.  Here in Hawaii we spend long hours in the lab while the mainland is sleeping or shoveling snow or being on CSPAN or whatever the hell it is you guys do over there.  Twitter allows us to share the small victories of lab-life with the handful of other people in the world who “get” what it’s like to piss yourself with delight over the growth of a new leaf.  This is invaluable to us and has improved our sorry lot immeasurably just within the last year.

2.  Saying something.  If Twitter is like a river, it’s also like graduate school in that you shouldn’t just get in and float around aimlessly for a few years.  What do you want to say?  What do you need to say?  Whatever it is, go say it, even if it is controversial.  Especially if it is controversial.  And you will inevitably step on someone’s toes, it’s unavoidable.  Credibility is an interesting thing both IRL and on Twitter.  A lot of Twitter-cred is simply a function of how much time you’re willing to spend on the riverbank.  You probably won’t have any luck arguing with someone who lives 24/7 at the river’s edge.  So set your own limits according to what else you’ve got going.  Remember that you can come and go from the river as you please, Good Glory it don’t need you to keep it flowing.  And do remember that tweeting about an issue is not the same as doing something about it.

3.  Expressing rage.  Some users really go in big for this option.  If you need evidence that Homo sapiens is a rageful species, Twitter is a convenient and supremely fecund source.  Some of the anger is straightforward to understand, since injustice inevitably inspires legitimate rage.  I suppose all rage is a legitimate response to something, just only rarely toward whomever it’s being tweeted.  Combine this with the fact that on Twitter one is not excessively accountable for one’s rage and you get The Perfect Interpersonal Storm.  Listen, you can scream insults in ALL CAPS for hours on Twitter, and you will not be held accountable in the same way that your neighbors will hold you accountable if you go out your front door and scream profanity at the top of your lungs all night long.  This has value because IRL accountability is often based on norms founded upon unjust power structures that are rendered deliciously ineffective by the internet.  Yes indeed, this has value, but it also carries a cost – and this cost is exacted not only from the person being screamed at, but also from the screamer’s overall effectiveness.  Incongruously enough, anger ultimately rings rather impotently through the halls of Twitter, while unexpected kindness can echo long.

4.  Setting an example.  One thing that makes Twitter so interesting is that there are almost no rules.  No one can control what hashtag you post to or what words you type, although I’ve seen people expend an impressive amount of energy trying to do just that.  I strongly recommend that you choose your own rules before setting sail down the River Twitter.  First take the time to explore your values.  What kind of person do you believe you are?  What kind of person do you want to be?  Decide the circumstances under which you would block a user who is attempting to communicate with you.  It may not seem likely at the start, but these will be criteria to which you’ll eventually appeal.  It’s constructive to consult the concept of reciprocity, and the long history of the internet can be useful here.  You can learn a lot about a user by examining a few days of recent feed.  Has the person demanding that you listen to them ever demonstrated a willingness to listen to anyone?  Has the person demanding that you change ever evidenced a change in themselves?  Deliniate your personal threshhold for reciprocity, set your limits, and then act accordingly.  Oh, and by the way, if you do this right then your students are watching you, as are a bunch of young people you don’t even know.  What example will you set for them in terms of how to handle internet conflict?  What will you teach them about how scientists should treat each other?

5.  Experimenting with your identity.  You can claim any identity you want on Twitter.  Start from the assumption, however, that most people want to know the real you.  Unless you make it relentlessly explicit that you are a parody account, people will assume that whatever you tweet is basically your real opinion.  What do you really think?  What do you really care about?  It is an interesting experience to tweet your opinions outloud.  You’ll also hear interesting opinions, sometimes held by unlikely identities.  There’s this rabbit that runs a lab and recently an urchin got on Twitter and by gosh I lay awake at night wondering what they’ll say next.  Many smart journalists have twitter feeds where they pull what is actually interesting out of the vast septic intertank as some kind of penance for something, I imagine.  Always remember that every tweet you read is out-of-context because there is no context that fits into 123.7 characters or whatever the hell the number is.  A healthy first reaction to every and any tweet is “Golly, I wonder what the hell the context for that could possibly be!”

So there’s five reasons for ya.  Since when have you had five good reasons to do anything?  Were there five good reasons to go to this week’s Faculty Meeting?  Exactly.  So go ahead and set up a Twitter account!  Hell, set up two or three or six.  Paint your nails and tweet a picture, you never know what might happen.  Come on down to the river and make your choice – because in the end, every time you tweet you are making a choice — whether you realize it or not.  Like every other arena of your life, you are choosing to what and whom you will give your time and emotional energy.   On Twitter, you will never be able to choose what people say to you.  But you are the one who chooses what you say back.

Do you like being told what to do by people who think they know everything?  If so you’re in the right place!  Here’s my advice on how to Get A Faculty Job, How to Save Time Your Faculty Job once you get it, and what to do After You Get Tenure.

What I Say When People Tell Me That They Feel Hopeless About Climate Change

Scientists like me study carbon emissions, deforestation, ocean acidification, desertification, sea-level rise, glacial melting, landscape degradation, groundwater salination, invasive species, global warming and more.  There is very little good news to share.  Today’s environmental problems are easily big enough to eclipse our inadequate solutions.  When people tell me that climate change makes them feel hopeless, I breathe deep, and then I respond.  I don’t answer them because I have a good response, but because we all deserve at least a bad response.  Here is what I say.

What I Say When People Tell Me That They Feel Hopeless About Climate Change

First of all, I remind them that we are strong and lucky.  That our planet is also home to one billion people who live wretchedly on less than one thousand calories a day.  The fact that we are of the group with food, shelter and clean water obligates us not to give up on the world that we have compromised.  Knowledge is responsibility.

I remind them that every Age is conscripted to struggle with its own impending Armageddon.  That during centuries past, men and women railed helpless against overwhelming natural forces that poisoned the wells, spoiled the crops and robbed them of their babies.  We may discount their science as superstition but it was based on state-of-the-art observations.  Genetically we are no smarter than they were, and we may be laboring in similar darkness.  I note that the succeeding centuries did bring unfathomable solutions to even the most intransigent of these ancient plagues.  And though these solutions came far too late for many, they were not too late for all.

I stress that it matters what we teach the next generation.  That we should mourn the marring of our childhood sleep with nightmares about the threat of nuclear war.  We risk our own paralysis via the message that we have hated the Earth and so the Earth hates us.  As far as we know, this is still our species’ eternal home, and we must not alienate our children from it.

If these are my colleagues, I tell them that complaining about something is not the same as doing something about it, and that scaring people is not the same as informing them.  Then I remind myself to take my own advice.

I reassure them that my address book is full of people who care about these issues.  That the smartest people I know are dedicating their lives to gathering the data that will tell us more.  That on this very day, scores of people got to the lab early and will stay late, trying to quantify the exact magnitude of the problem.  That we are walking the fields and counting what is there and what is not.  That the ecologists who first noticed these problems could not have imagined the computers or instruments that we now use every day.  That scientists are watching and working and not just worrying.  That Science is really just as it has always been — overworked and underfunded and absolutely unwavering in its refusal to ever stop trying to figure it all out.

When people tell me that they feel hopeless about climate change, I look them in the eye, steady my voice and state that I believe all will be okay, even though we both know damn well that it may not.  Then I put my head down and I go back to work.

Next month my student graduates with a thesis project focused on crops, carbon dioxide and global hunger, which is what got me thinking.  It’s my first big foray out of rather esoteric plant biochemistry and into socially-relevant climate change research.  I also love science, and believe that it embodies all of our best hopes for tomorrow.