Government Funding Not Conducive to Serendipity

(p. 301) Even in the early twentieth century, the climate was more conducive to serendipitous discovery. In the United States, for example, scientific research was funded by private foundations, notably the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York (established 1901) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913). The Rockefeller Institute modeled itself on prestigious European organizations such as the Pasteur Institute in France and the Koch Institute in Germany, recruiting the world’s best scientists and providing them with comfortable stipends, well-equipped laboratories, and freedom from teaching obligations and university politics, so that they could devote their energies to research. The Rockefeller Foundation, which was the most expansive supporter of basic research, especially in biology, between the two world wars, relied on successful programs to seek promising scientists to identify and accelerate burgeoning fields of interest. In Britain, too, the Medical Research Council believed in “picking the man, not the project,” and nurturing successful results with progressive grants.
After World War II, everything about scientific research changed. The U.S. government–which previously had had little to do with funding research except for some agricultural projects–took on a major role. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) grew out of feeble beginnings in 1930 but became foremost among the granting agencies in the early 1940s at around the time they moved to Bethesda, Maryland. The government then established the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950 to promote progress in science and engineering. Research in the United States became centralized and therefore suffused with bureaucracy. The lone scientist working independently was now a rarity. Research came to be characterized by large teams drawing upon multiple scientific disciplines and using highly technical methods in an environment that promoted the not-very-creative phenomenon known as “groupthink.” Under this new regime, the competition (p. 302) among researchers for grant approvals fostered a kind of conformity with existing dogma. As the bureaucracy of granting agencies expanded, planning and justification became the order of the day, thwarting the climate in which imaginative thought and creative ideas flourish.

Source:
Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

“Bad Ideas Die Hard, Especially Those that Flatter Our Vanity”

(p. C5) Mütter was one of the first plastic surgeons in America.
. . .
Mütter was also a pioneer of burn surgery.
. . .
Every hero needs a good antagonist and Mütter had a great one, a professor and blowhard named Charles D. Meigs who was as contrary as a Missouri mule. Meigs was a highly regarded obstetrician and one of Mütter’s colleagues at Jefferson. He rejected Mütter’s namby-pamby notions by reflex. Anesthesia? Pshaw! Men and women are put on earth to suffer. Handwashing? Humbug! The very idea that physicians could spread disease was preposterous. As Meigs wrote, “a gentleman’s hands are clean.” Unfortunately, bad ideas die hard, especially those that flatter our vanity. The fight to make medicine as humane as possible continues long after Mütter’s premature death from tuberculosis in 1859.

For the full review, see:
JOHN ROSS. “The Doctor Will See You Now.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Aug. 30, 2014): C5.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 29, 2014, and has the title “Book Review: ‘Dr. Mütter’s Marvels’ by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.”)

The book under review is:
Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Müt­ters Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.

“It’s Better to Die on Your Feet than Live on Your Knees”

(p. A1) MIAMI — In an unexpected echo of the refugee crisis from two decades ago, a rising tide of Cubans in rickety, cobbled-together boats is fleeing the island and showing up in the waters off Florida.
Leonardo Heredia, a 24-year-old Cuban baker, for example, tried and failed to reach the shores of Florida eight times.
Last week, he and 21 friends from his Havana neighborhood gathered the combined know-how from their respective botched migrations and made a boat using a Toyota motor, scrap stainless steel and plastic foam. Guided by a pocket-size Garmin GPS, they finally made it to Florida on Mr. Heredia’s ninth attempt.
“Things that were bad in Cuba are now worse,” Mr. Heredia said. “If there was more money in Cuba to pay for the trips, everyone would go.”
. . .
(p. A18) . . . Yannio La O, 31, [is] an elementary school wrestling coach who arrived in Miami last week after a shipwreck landed him in Mexico.
He and 31 others departed from Manzanillo, in southern Cuba, in late August on a boat they built over the course of three months. They ran into engine trouble, and the food they brought was contaminated by a sealant they carried aboard to patch holes in the hull. They spent 24 days lost at sea.
“Every day at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., somebody died,” Mr. La O said.
Nine people, including a pregnant woman, died and were thrown overboard, and six more got on inner tubes and disappeared before the Mexican Navy rescued the survivors, Mr. Sánchez said. Two more died at shore. Mr. La O said he survived by drinking urine and spearing fish.
. . .
“Even if half the people who leave from Cuba do not survive, that means half of them did,” Mr. La O said, speaking from his grandmother’s house in Miami, where he arrived last week. “I would tell anyone in Cuba to come. It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”

For the full story, see:
FRANCES ROBLES. “In Rickety Boats, Cuban Migrants Again Flee to U.S.” The New York Times (Fri., OCT. 10, 2014): A1 & A18.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 9, 2014.”)

“Milestone of Dubious Distinction:” Venezuela Joins North Korea and Cuba in Food Rationing

(p. A15) MARACAIBO, Venezuela–Amid worsening shortages, Venezuela recently reached a milestone of dubious distinction: It has joined the ranks of North Korea and Cuba in rationing food for its citizens.
On a recent, muggy morning, Maria Varge stood in line outside a Centro 99 grocery store, ready to scour the shelves for scarce items like cooking oil and milk. But before entering, Ms. Varge had to scan her fingerprint to ensure she wouldn’t buy more than her share.
Despite its technological twist on the old allotment booklet, Venezuela’s new program of rationing is infuriating consumers who say it creates tiresome waits, doesn’t relieve shortages and overlooks the far-reaching economic overhauls the country needs to resolve the problem.
“These machines make longer lines,” said Ms. Varge, 50, as she was jostled by people in line, “but you get inside, and they still don’t have what you want.”

For the full story, see:
SARA SCHAEFER MUÑOZ. “WORLD NEWS; Despite Riches, Venezuela Starts Food Rationing; Government Rolls Out Fingerprint Scanners to Limit Purchases of Basic Goods; ‘How Is it Possible We’ve Gotten to This Extreme’.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Oct. 23, 2014): A15.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 22, 2014.)

Eisenhower Warned that “a Government Contract Becomes Virtually a Substitute for Intellectual Curiosity”

(p. 300) In his farewell address on January 17, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower famously cautioned the nation about the influence of the “military-industrial complex,” coining a phrase that became part of the political vernacular. However, in the same speech, he presciently warned that scientific and academic research might become too dependent on, and thus shaped by, government grants. He foresaw a situation in which “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

Source:
Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

How “the Credentials Arms-Race” Now “Defines Young Adulthood”

(p. A11) . . . “Excellent Sheep” is a cri de coeur against the credentials arms-race that now defines young adulthood–and even childhood–for many Americans. But you don’t have to take his word for it: The book features interviews and correspondence with students and recent graduates of elite institutions. Beyond their glowing transcripts and the fact that they have become “accomplished adult-wranglers,” these students are anxious, depressed and searching for some deeper meaning in their lives. “For many students, rising to the absolute top means being consumed by the system. I’ve seen my peers sacrifice health, relationships, exploration, activities that can’t be quantified and are essential for developing souls and hearts, for grades and resume building,” one Stanford student told the author. A Yalie put it more succinctly: “I might be miserable, but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.”

For the full review, see:
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH. “BOOKSHELF; The Credentials Arms-Race; Students sacrifice all to grades and resume building–‘I might be miserable,’ a Yalie noted, ‘but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.’.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Aug. 21, 2014): A11.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 20, 2014, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Book Review: ‘Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite’ by William Deresiewicz; Students sacrifice all to grades and resume building–‘I might be miserable,’ a Yalie noted, ‘but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.’.”)

The book under review is:
Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York, NY: Free Press, 2014.

U.S. Patents and Start-Ups Fall When We Exclude Tech Immigrants

(p. A19) The process of bringing skilled immigrants to the U.S. via H-1B visas and putting them on the path to eventual citizenship has been a political football for at least a decade. It has long been bad news for those immigrants trapped in this callous process. Now the U.S. economy is beginning to suffer, too.
Every year, tens of thousands of disappointed tech workers and other professionals give up while waiting for a resident visa or green card, and go home–having learned enough to start companies that compete with their former U.S. employers. The recent historic success of China’s Alibaba IPO is a reminder that a new breed of companies is being founded, and important innovation taking place, in other parts of the world. More than a quarter of all patents filed today in the U.S. bear the name of at least one foreign national residing here.
The U.S. no longer has a monopoly on great startups. In the past, the best and brightest people would come to the U.S., but now they are staying home. In Silicon Valley, according to a 2012 survey by Duke and Stanford Universities and the University of California at Berkeley, the percentage of new companies started by foreign-born entrepreneurs has begun to slide for the first time–down to 43.9% during 2006-12, from 52.4% during 1995-2005.

For the full commentary, see:
MICHAEL S. MALONE. “OPINION; The Self-Inflicted U.S. Brain Drain; Up to 1.5 million skilled workers are stuck in immigration limbo. Many give up and go home.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., OCT. 16, 2014): A19.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date OCT. 15, 2014.)

The 2012 survey is discussed further in:
Wadhwa, Vivek, AnnaLee Saxenian, and F. Daniel Siciliano. “Then and Now: America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part VII.” Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, October 2012.

An in-depth discussion of the issues raised by Malone can be found in:
Wadhwa, Vivek. The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent. pb ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wharton Digital Press, 2012.