Putin muzzling science in Russia: a return to the Soviet era?

Vladimir Putin looking skeptically at a scientist.
In a surprising development this past week, Russia has notified all scientists at Moscow State University (MSU) that they must submit their research papers to the state security service before they will be permitted to publish them. Nature News reports that Russia is imposing this policy on universities and research institutes throughout the country.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise. Vladimir Putin has steadily imposed ever greater restrictions on the media, to the point where most Russians are not even aware that Russian-backed fighters shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 last year. This new move towards censorship is just one more step towards imposing Stalin-esque restrictions on all Russians. Requiring scientists to submit their manuscripts to the security services will severely cripple their ability to publish anything even remotely novel or interesting. Why take the chance?

Mikhail Gelfand, a prominent scientist in my own field of bioinformatics, told Nature that:
“This is a return to Soviet times when in order to send a paper to an international journal, we had to get a permission specifying that the result is not new and important and hence may be published abroad.”
Exactly: Putin is returning Russian to the bad old days of the repressive USSR, when the state controlled all media and ordinary citizens were afraid to speak. For now, a few scientists were willing to speak to Nature, but we shouldn't be surprised if even those voices are silenced in the future.

In a bit of absurdist theater, under the new policy Russian scientists who write their papers in English (as is commonly required for publication) must translate them into Russian, because the security service personnel (apparently) cannot read English. I doubt too that the Russian security services have the expertise to understand even a fraction of the papers that they are demanding to see.

Russia has a long history of scientific innovation across all fields of science, particularly mathematics and physics. Under the repressive Soviet regimes of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors, many Russian scientists fled to the West, where they could work without fear of being thrown into a gulag. The U.S. and Europe–and the world–benefitted greatly from their expertise.

Russia’s scientific output has been lagging in recent years, according to an article in Nature earlier this year. There have been a few bright spots, though, such as (in my own field) the recently-created Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics at St. Petersburg State University, which has already published some outstanding papers. Now I wonder how long that new center will last.

Ironically, the famous geneticist Dobzhansky, after whom the new St. Petersburg institute is named, left Russia as a young man in 1927 and moved to the U.S., where he went on to do his groundbreaking work in evolutionary biology.

Putin’s obsession with power and control might be an opportunity for the rest of us. Here’s a call to Russian scientists: follow Dobzhansky’s example and come to the U.S. We may have our flaws, but you can publish your work freely, and you can even write a blog criticizing the leaders of your university, or your former university's football policy, or your political leaders.

Football is still corrupting our universities. It needs to go.

(In which I again take on the football-industrial complex, and get myself in trouble with fans.)

It's happening again. The University of Maryland is about to pay millions of dollars to its football coach so they can fire him a year early, and proceed to hire a new football coach and pay him millions of dollars. All this at a time when the university is desperately strapped for cash, after years of hiring freezes, salary freezes, and unpaid furloughs for its employees.

What's truly astonishing is that U. Maryland did exactly the same thing just four years ago, and it has been a complete disaster. Here's how I described the scenario in 2011, when I was still a professor there:

  • Pay $2 million to buy out the old coach, Ralph Friedgen, and hire a new one, Randy Edsall who will presumably boost attendance and revenue.
  • Hire Edsall for $2 million per year, who then produced a losing season (2 wins, 10 losses), leaving games with even lower attendance than before.
  • Because football is still losing money, get rid of 8 other varsity sports.

Yes, they really did eliminate 8 other sports in order to invest more in football. Here's what they cut: men’s cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track, men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis, women’s acrobatics and tumbling, women’s swimming and diving, and women’s water polo.

None of this produced any tangible benefits, either financial or academic.

Now let's look at what U. Maryland is about to do now, after several embarrassing blowout losses this season:

  • Pay $4.7 million to buy out the current coach, Randy Edsall. That's $2.1 million for the rest of this season and $2.6 million for next year. 
  • Hire a new football coach and pay him at least as much as the old coach.
  • Continue to impose unpaid furloughs and pay freezes on academic staff across the board.
Wow, this investment in football really seems to be working for U. Maryland.

What the heck is the U. Maryland president, Wallace Loh, thinking? 

Loh originally hired Edsall just a month after he (Loh) joined the university. One might attempt to explain this as a rookie error made by a new president. But this time he has no such excuse.

U. Maryland is by no means alone in its misguided emphasis on football. In 2012, the University of Florida announced it was eliminating its Computer Science program while simultaneously increasing the football budget. The ensuing outcry (spurred in part by my Forbes blog) convinced the administration to back down, but at the time they saw no irony in their plan to cut science education and spend more on football. 

Listen, sports fans: football is not the reason we have universities. Universities exist to provide education, no matter what the (sometimes rabid) football boosters may say. Some American universities (hello U. Chicago!) do extremely well without having a team at all. Outside the U.S., universities have no major sports programs at all–the students enjoy sports, as all young people do, but the universities focus on what they do best.

Yes, I know the arguments on the other side. “Football makes a profit,” some claim. To that I would say, so what? Universities could make a profit running a casino too – should they do that?

But just for the sake of argument, let's accept the premise that football is profitable. Great! In that case, we can spin off the teams as private corporations, and let them pay to use the university logos, stadiums, etc. The teams can pay the players, as any professional team must, and the students and alumni can continue to cheer on "their" teams, just as residents of Baltimore cheer for "their" professional, privately owned Ravens team. 

Let's face it: university administrations are simply not equipped to run a major sports and entertainment business, which is what college football has become. The spectable of U. Maryland spending $4.7 million simply to buy out its current football coach, when the university is desperately trying to save money for its core mission, demonstrates how corrupting the influence of football has become.

Even worse is the shameful abuse of the players, who serve as unpaid laborers while their coaches make millions. "We give them a free education," administrators and coaches respond. Yeah, right. College football is a multi-billion dollar industry, in which the athletes at the center of the game are prohibited from taking any money. Just pay them, and they can decide if they want to pay tuition with their own money.

If we make college football private, everyone wins. Universities keep their football revenue, the fans get their team, and the university no longer has to pretend that it's educating its unpaid football players. We could even set up the system so that players were given a proper academic scholarship after their playing days were over, which for most of them is just a few years. And perhaps best of all, the players would earn the paychecks they deserve. 

Otherwise, expect me to write another article in about five years, in which I will describe yet again how the University of Maryland (or some other school) is paying millions of dollars to buy out the contract of their football coach, while the school's academic mission is ignored.

Don't eat dirt

Don't eat dirt. It's bad for you.

This might seem like a head-slappingly obvious piece of advice, but there have been a slew of reports in recent years suggesting just the opposite.  Here are a few headlines:

  • "Eating Dirt: The benefits of being (relatively) filthy" in Scientific American
  • "Eating Dirt: It might be good for you" from the ABC News website
  • "Eating dirt can be good for the belly, researchers find" from Science Daily, summarizing a 2011 anthropological study in the Quarterly Review of Biology
  • "The old and mysterious practice of eating dirt, revealed" at NPR.org, describing a documentary film, Eat White Dirt, released last year.
And there's even a blogger who claims that dirt is "the missing superfood."

These articles describe a custom in which women, especially pregnant women are advised to eat dirt or clay, which some people claim offers health benefits. The ABC News story quotes a Georgia woman saying about the clay she eats, "The good stuff is real smooth. It's just like a piece of candy."

There's even a name for this practice: geophagy, or "earth eating." The NPR story claims this practice goes back millenia. Of course, ancient humans tended to die before they reached the age of 40, so I'm not sure I want to imitate their dietary practices.

Dirt is not the new superfood. Quite the contrary: dirt is the home of some nasty parasites, including a type of worm call toxocara, which can make you extremely ill. These worms are invisible to the naked eye–you can't see them crawling around–but they can cause devastating disease and even death.

This came to my attention last week in a case report in the New England Journal of Medicine (written by Dr. Steven Feske and colleagues) about a 38-year-old pregnant woman who was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital with back and neck pain, vomiting, and headache. She was initially treated and released, but 11 days later,
"...she began to hyperventilate and her vision went black from the periphery to the center. The symptoms lasted for approximately 2 minutes and were followed by spots in her visual fields, headache, neck pain that radiated to her arms, nausea, and dizziness."
Mass General ran extensive tests, and her brain MRI showed lesions "suggestive of multiple strokes." Given all her symptoms, her physicians suspected that she was infected by a parasitic worm (a helminth or nematode) caused by eating dirt or clay. The patient was originally from Guatemala, where nematode infections are common, and where dirt-eating during pregnancy is encouraged in some areas. As they explain in the NEJM article:
“According to a tourist brochure from the Christian shrine in Esquipulas, Guatemala, 'In Guatemala, eating clay tablets combines healing, devotional reminders, blessings from Our Lord of Esquipulas, good fortune, and pregnancy nutrition.' ” 
Some of the tests came back positive for Toxocara, a parasite roundworm. Only then did the patient reveal that she had been eating dirt, but not from Guatemala, which she had not visited in several years. She had eaten dirt from a neighbor's yard in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, there is an effective treatment for Toxocara infection, and the patient recovered and delivered a healthy baby.

The roundworms that cause toxocariasis are commonly found in dirt in the U.S. They are transmitted by dogs, who spread them around through their feces. Pretty disgusting, right? A variety of other nasty parasites are transmitted through soil, including other kinds of roundworms, whipworms, and hookworms.

So don't eat dirt. It's not good for you. Really.