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Chemical Eye on the Competitive Edge
by Preston MacDougall


October 24, 2005

To stay on top of their game, some athletes develop their own extreme training regimen. My favorite example is the Czech long-distance runner, Emil Zatopek, who trained with his wife on his back.

jpg Preston MacDougall

Recent Congressional hearings about widespread abuse of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, in both professional and amateur sports, reveal that many athletes now train with a monkey on their back. Any long-time athlete can tell you that only the public testimonies are new.

Even more recent Congressional testimony concerns another kind of competitive edge, and how the economic well-being of everybody in the country will be negatively impacted if we lose it. The October 13th headline in The New York Times read: "Top Advisory Panel Warns of an Erosion of the U.S. Competitive Edge in Science."

Presently, the federal government is on the backs of U.S. researchers exploring the use of embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning for the purposes of regenerative medicine. Such research is not illegal, but aside from research on tainted cell lines that pre-date the restricting legislation, federal funding of that research is.

There has been healthy private funding of such research since its inception, and rapidly growing state-sponsored funding is being endorsed by plebiscite after plebiscite. Still, the federal monkey is real.

One testimony on the monkey's effect comes from Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the stem cell institute at the University of California, San Francisco. In yet an even more recent story in The New York Times - on the leap-frogging of U.S. researchers by Korean scientists in the field of therapeutic cloning - Dr. Kriegstein is quoted as saying that "There has been a real chill in the United States with nuclear transfer work because of all the ethical controversies surrounding it."

The concerns of the Advisory Panel, as well as the Congressional leaders who gave it its charge, are not limited to the field of regenerative medicine. Instead of razor-sharp, our competitive edge in modern engineering fields will soon be paper-thin if our colleges and universities continue to annually produce only 70,000 engineering graduates, as compared to 700,000 in China alone.

And modern materials are the stuff of modern high-technology. Eyebrows raised, the Advisory Panel also tried to draw the country's attention to the worrisome fact that of the 120 major chemical plants currently under construction around the world, 50 are in China, and just one is in the United States.

Credit: The National Academies,
Washington D.C.

The panel's report, titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm", is available to the public at In lieu of steroids, the panel has listed 20 steps that the country could take in order to maintain its competitive edge in science, engineering and medicine. As you might expect, many have a price tag attached to them.

For instance, one of the panel's recommendations is that, annually, 200 of the nation's most talented and innovative young researchers should annually receive new, five-year research grants worth $500,000. each. They also call for doubling the deductible percentage of investments that qualify as a Research and Experimentation Tax Credit with the IRS, and for making this deduction permanent.

I work at a university, and I also know something about how steroids affect the biochemistry of athletes. Money and steroids may be chemically unrelated, but when it comes to universities and athletes, respectively, their effects are perfectly analogous.

I may be very naïve though. For instance, I imagined what might have happened if the panel had asked the 800-pound gorilla in the hearing room - the one wearing the snug pullover with a big 'U' on the front - if he had any input on the problem. This seemed like a good idea to me, since few universities outside the United States give athletic scholarships.

Clearly the gorilla didn't think so. He stood up, bared his teeth ferociously, and beat his chest quite impressively. It sounded as if he was yelling "DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE"

I then imagined that someone on the panel, even more naïve than me, motioned that the meeting adjourn, and reconvene in another room. One that has sturdy walls and smaller doors. There was no second, and the motion died.

Oh, one more big news story to report. From the October 19th front page of USA Today, many American universities are guilty of underreporting spending on athletics, and the spending that is reported is growing three times as fast as overall university spending.



Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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