A venture under pressure
Scientific innovation has long powered the San Francisco Bay Area’s economy, but community and political challenges could undermine progress.
From the integrated circuit to synthetic insulin, mail-order genetic tests and ride sharing, scientific discoveries and technologies developed by researchers and engineers in the San Francisco Bay Area have fuelled the local economy for decades.
But while politicians and urban planners around the world try to emulate the Bay Area’s path to economic success through research prowess, locals and social scientists are asking whether the region’s model of growth is sustainable. The Bay Area is burdened by the high cost of housing, income inequality, homelessness, gridlocked traffic, and inadequate public transportation. These threaten to undermine the region’s status as an economic dynamo. “The viability of the innovation economy is in question,” says Benjamin Grant, a director at the non-profit San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).
“The problems the Bay Area is facing are the problems of success,” says Grant. The northern California metropolis is among the top 50 science cities in the Nature Index, measured by its contribution to the authorship of 82 high-quality research journals. When assessed solely on the output of its corporate institutions, it ranks number one. The question is whether the Bay Area can, in the face of mounting social problems, retain these companies and the brilliant researchers whose work they depend on.
In the 1970s, the Boston area, with its prestigious universities and long-established corporations, would have been a good bet to become the tech industry hub, says AnnaLee Saxenian, a political scientist and dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. But an unusual culture in the Bay Area of open exchange between researchers, companies and universities, as well as strong ties to venture capital, she says, fostered science and engineering research, particularly in Silicon Valley. This sharing and information free-flow arose, in part, from the values of the 1960s hippie counterculture, which was centred in San Francisco.
“Engineers were reacting against the corporate culture of the east coast,” says Saxenian. Talented scientists and engineers came to the Bay Area from around the world to have access to networks, prototyping and venture funds. And venture capitalists looking for the next big thing, says Saxenian, found it in labs at Stanford University, and at the University of California’s campuses in San Francisco, Davis and Berkeley.
The city has attracted many high-achieving scientists in the natural sciences. Zora Modrusan, who develops gene sequencing and analysis techniques at the biotech company Genentech, says the strength of the biotech industry drew her to the Bay Area from Canada 19 years ago. “It’s very dynamic and interactive,” she says. Since 2015, Modrusan has co-authored some 20 articles in the index journals, developing methods for analysing the functional significance of genetic changes in cancer and other diseases. Her current work seeks insights into the heterogeneity within tumours.
James Hedrick, a materials scientist at IBM Research–Almaden in San Jose, says his work has benefited from exchanges with the region’s biologists, machine-learning experts, and catalysis chemists. Hedrick engineers new polymers and has co-authored more than a dozen articles in index journals over the past three years. Initially, IBM was using these materials in part of its chip-making process; now, Hedrick is developing them for devices to deliver targeted drug therapies.
If you ask a local in San Francisco, you might hear a different take on what the Bay Area’s booming innovation economy means: inadequate public transportation and gridlocked traffic (made all the more galling by the privately owned ‘tech buses’ pulling into public bus stops), growing income inequality, the displacement of communities of colour, and homelessness.
Perhaps the most severe challenge in the region is housing. Real estate company Zillow estimates that the median monthly price for a two-bedroom rental in San Francisco averages US$4,130, towering over the nationwide average of US$1,442, and more than a thousand dollars above New York and Boston. At last count, in January 2017, there were 7,499 homeless people in the city; these numbers have remained fairly steady since 2013.
Grant says the current crop of innovation-driven companies has failed to engage with these civic problems. For better or for worse, he says, “the world of research and innovation has been a world apart in California.”
Although the tech industry has increased demand for housing and driven up prices, it does not carry the full blame for the city’s social ills, says Alex Schafran, a geographer at the University of Leeds, in the United Kingdom, who studies California’s housing crisis.
Broader cultural forces and political failures have contributed. Most people agree that the Bay Area needs more housing, but no one wants tall buildings to go up in their own neighbourhoods, says Grant. And under California’s system of government, even if regional planning authorities agree on the need for more housing and public transit, local communities can veto such construction. Building outside developed areas is restricted by conservation regulations that protect large swaths of park lands.
These woes are eroding quality of life in the Bay Area, says Grant, and making it ever more difficult for companies and universities to hire and retain the best researchers and students. Companies are also beginning to move elsewhere, he says. As further evidence of the trend, San Francisco’s output in the index has declined in recent years, from a fractional count of 1,723.8 in 2012 to 1,676.35 in 2017.
Such regional declines are hardly unprecedented. “At one time Detroit was the centre of innovation in the United States, and Detroit collapsed,” says Grant. But he sees hope in moves by state legislators. California Senate Bill 827, introduced in January 2018 by San Francisco’s State Senator Scott Wiener, would have enabled the construction of more housing near public transportation hubs. The bill didn’t pass, but that it was even proposed is a sign that the tides may be shifting, says Grant.
Saxenian is more reserved in her projections, and for good reason. Her first paper about Silicon Valley predicted that the high cost of living would drive the tech industry out of the area. That was in the 1980s. “I was wrong,” she says. The same conditions that drove the development of the Bay Area’s strong culture of scientific innovation make it resilient.
Saxenian sees other threats to research innovation in the Bay Area: repeated cuts to the University of California’s budget, and restrictive immigration policies, in particular. “Immigration has been beneficial both to the Bay Area and to other countries,” says Saxenian, who has written a book (The New Argonauts) on the subject. “Talent goes both ways,” she says. But this mutual benefit gets lost in the national political conversation.
Schafran, who grew up in the Bay Area, says researchers and engineers need to get more involved in addressing its social ills — but there are no quick fixes. Since they’ve been building for decades, “it’s gonna take another 30 years to get ourselves out of it,” he says. “We can’t do this overnight.” If researchers remain detached and don’t think locally, it could be to their own detriment. “You may be on the top of the world for the moment, but don’t get too comfortable,” says Grant.
This article is part of Nature Index 2018 Science Cities, an editorially independent supplement. Advertisers have no influence over the content.
Cracking Open a Cold One with the Flies
Caltech researchers demonstrate that fruit flies are attracted to carbon dioxide during periods of active foragingNews Writer: Elise Cutts Credit: Floris van Breugel Crack open a beer outside and it is a safe bet that you will soon be defending it from a few unwelcome drinking buddies. Fruit flies have a knack for appearing whenever someone opens up a can of beer or a bottle of wine, but how do they do it? In a study spanning six years and thousands of experiments, Caltech scientists discovered that fruit flies are attracted to carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas associated with their favorite foods—and some of our favorite beverages. The research overturns earlier scientific consensus that flies avoid CO2. The work was done in the laboratory of Michael Dickinson, the Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering and Aeronautics. A paper describing the research appears in the November 21 issue of the journal Nature. The study, led by former postdoctoral scholar Floris van Breugel (PhD '14), now an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, resolves a paradox surrounding fruit flies' response to CO2 that had puzzled scientists for decades. "The scientific literature about insects broadly shows that CO2 is a universal attractant," explains Dickinson. "But a long series of papers claimed that fruit flies are averse to CO2. They're basically the only insect for which that was reported." That fruit flies would avoid CO2 was especially confusing because flies eat yeast, single-celled fungi that produce CO2 as they ferment sugars. "Drosophila melanogaster, the standard laboratory fruit fly, evolved to eat the yeast that lives in fermenting fruit. It is a yeast specialist, and not just a yeast specialist but basically a brewing yeast specialist. The flies co-evolved with humans to live off of what we use to make beer and wine," says Dickinson. Appropriately, it was a home-brewing project that inspired van Breugel to pursue this line of inquiry: As he thought more about fermentation, he began to believe that, contrary to the findings of other scientists, flies ought to be attracted to CO2. Van Breugel set up a preliminary experiment that confirmed his hunch and drew him further into the problem. Van Breugel was working with mosquitoes at the time, doing experiments in the Dickinson Lab wind tunnel, a large, open chamber within which mosquitoes or flies could fly around or land on a platform from which plumes of CO2 are released. Cameras tracked the insects' movements within the tunnel and over the platform. "I thought, 'Why don't I put some flies in the same arena and see what they do?'" van Breugel says. "After I ran the experiment, I found that the flies had actually crawled through the tube where the CO2 was being emitted into the wind tunnel—they just kept crawling! So that confirmed that they are, indeed, attracted to CO2 and that I should really investigate that more closely," he says. After this first experiment, van Breugel and his co-authors continued studying flies in the wind tunnel and in other experimental setups designed to test how factors like time of day and wind speeds impacted their CO2 response. The researchers found that flies seek out CO2 when in an active state but avoid it while sluggish—for example, when they are sleepy or simply moving slowly because of factors like high winds or hunger. This observation resolved the apparent contradiction between the Dickinson Lab's results and those other studies showing that flies avoided CO2; the setups of earlier experiments likely caused the flies to become inactive. To van Breugel, this experiment is an important lesson for researchers: "If we want to understand how an animal functions, how the brain works, or even how genes function, we can't just be looking at animals in some very artificial laboratory environment. If you're going to do neuroscience, you need to make sure you're considering the behavioral and ecological context of the animal." Why do flies avoid CO2 when less active? Dickinson sees the behavior as a balance between the reward of proximity to food sources and the risk of danger. For example, since CO2 is produced by animals when they breathe, it attracts predators like parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs on fruit fly eggs, larvae, and adult flies. "So, if a fly is going to sleep and not trying to find food, it wouldn't want to be near a gas that is going to attract things that are trying to eat it and its babies," he says. Dickinson and other researchers are still working to determine the biological clockwork underpinning how flies and other animals make "choices" like this one. "Our research lays the groundwork for experiments that will help us understand how decision-making happens in a fly, which is a good model for making a first pass at how decision-making might happen in other kinds of animals, eventually even humans," says van Breugel. The paper is titled "Distinct activity-gated pathways mediate attraction and aversion to CO2 in Drosophila." Ainul Huda, manager of the Dickinson Laboratory, is also a co-author. Funding was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the Simons Foundation. Michael Dickinson is an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.Related Links: Guiding Flight: The Fruit Fly's Celestial CompassThe Strange Case of the Scuba Diving Fly
Focusing on the Negative is Good When it Comes to Batteries
New concept based on fluoride ions may increase battery lifespansNews Writer: Whitney Clavin An illustration of the electrolyte solution used in the new study, on the atomic scale. The fluoride ion (pink) is surrounded by a liquid of BTFE molecules.Credit: Brett Savoie/Purdue University Imagine not having to charge your phone or laptop for weeks. That is the dream of researchers looking into alternative batteries that go beyond the current lithium-ion versions popular today. Now, in a new study appearing in the journal Science, chemists at several institutions, including Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by Caltech for NASA, as well as the Honda Research Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have hit on a new way of making rechargeable batteries based on fluoride, the negatively charged form, or anion, of the element fluorine. "Fluoride batteries can have a higher energy density, which means that they may last longer—up to eight times longer than batteries in use today," says study co-author Robert Grubbs, Caltech's Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry and a winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. "But fluoride can be challenging to work with, in particular because it's so corrosive and reactive." In the 1970s, researchers attempted to create rechargeable fluoride batteries using solid components, but solid-state batteries work only at high temperatures, making them impractical for everyday use. In the new study, the authors report at last figuring out how to make the fluoride batteries work using liquid components—and liquid batteries easily work at room temperature. "We are still in the early stages of development, but this is the first rechargeable fluoride battery that works at room temperature," says Simon Jones, a chemist at JPL and corresponding author of the new study. Batteries drive electrical currents by shuttling charged atoms—or ions—between a positive and negative electrode. This shuttling process proceeds more easily at room temperature when liquids are involved. In the case of lithium-ion batteries, lithium is shuttled between the electrodes with the help of a liquid solution, or electrolyte. "Recharging a battery is like pushing a ball up a hill and then letting it roll back again, over and over," says co-author Thomas Miller, professor of chemistry at Caltech. "You go back and forth between storing the energy and using it." While lithium ions are positive (called cations), the fluoride ions used in the new study bear a negative charge (and are called anions). There are both challenges and advantages to working with anions in batteries. "For a battery that lasts longer, you need to move a greater number of charges. Moving multiply charged metal cations is difficult, but a similar result can be achieved by moving several singly charged anions, which travel with comparative ease," says Jones, who does research at JPL on power sources needed for spacecraft. "The challenges with this scheme are making the system work at useable voltages. In this new study, we demonstrate that anions are indeed worthy of attention in battery science since we show that fluoride can work at high enough voltages." The key to making the fluoride batteries work in a liquid rather than a solid state turned out to be an electrolyte liquid called bis(2,2,2-trifluoroethyl)ether, or BTFE. This solvent is what helps keep the fluoride ion stable so that it can shuttle electrons back and forth in the battery. Jones says his intern at the time, Victoria Davis, who now studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was the first to think of trying BTFE. While Jones did not have much hope it would succeed, the team decided to try it anyway and were surprised it worked so well. At that point, Jones turned to Miller for help in understanding why the solution worked. Miller and his group ran computer simulations of the reaction and figured out which aspects of BTFE were stabilizing the fluoride. From there, the team was able to tweak the BTFE solution, modifying it with additives to improve its performance and stability. "We're unlocking a new way of making longer-lasting batteries," says Jones. "Fluoride is making a comeback in batteries." The Science study, titled, "Room Temperature Cycling of Metal Fluoride Electrodes: Liquid Electrolytes for High Energy Fluoride–Ion Cells," was funded by the Resnick Sustainability Institute and the Molecular Materials Research Center, both at Caltech, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Honda Research Institute. Other authors at Caltech during the study include Christopher Bates, Brett Savoie, Nebojša Momčilović, William Wolf, Michael Webb, Isabelle Darolles, and Nanditha Nair.
Look west for resistance
With the most to lose from looming federal funding cuts, California's researchers take a stand. In December 2016, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the governor of California, Jerry Brown, declared that if the new Trump administration stopped monitoring the Earth's climate with federal satellites, the Golden State would “launch its own damn satellites.” Brown's response followed earlier comments from a senior advisor to then president-elect Donald Trump proposing the elimination of funding for NASA's Earth science division. It was the first of many rumours, culminating in deep reductions to federal science spending in the president's proposed budget for 2018. The announcements have coincided with moves to restrict immigration, including a sweeping review of the visa programme used by research institutions to employ foreign scientists. “We've got scientists, we've got lawyers, and we're ready to fight,” said Brown to resounding applause from the crowd of climate scientists. But scientists in California are doing much more than cheering and clapping. Like Brown, they are using their political voice to challenge what they feel has been a gradual erosion of evidence-based policy-making. “From climate change to food scarcity to income inequality, we need people in office who can think creatively and use evidence to make decisions,” says Jess Phoenix, a geologist who studies active and extinct volcanoes across four continents. In April, she announced her decision to run for Congress to represent her home district north of Los Angeles. “We need scientists to take a stand,” she says. Cutting it close California, the most populous state in the US, has long been a science stronghold. With a weighted fractional count (WFC) of around 3,000, the research output of institutions in California in the Nature Index is nearly double that of its closest competitor, Massachusetts. For every 1,000 scientists and engineers working in the state in 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted it 45 patents — the highest in the country. Part of the state's research dominance can be explained by the large number of life, physical and social scientists employed in California — almost three times as many as in Massachusetts. In 2016, California received 15% of the total US allocation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), which was the largest share for any state, amounting to US$4.6 billion. But from its position at the pinnacle of research, California stands to lose more than any other state from the cuts to science funding proposed by the Trump administration. Trump's budget outline, released in May 2017, calls for slashing the spend by 18% for the NIH and by 11% for the NSF. California's losses would be likely to have far-reaching implications for the research output of the wider scientific community, given that many scientists in the state collaborate with peers across the country, and the world. In 2016, institutions in California formed more than 8,400 partnerships with counterparts in other states to co-author papers included in the index — the highest in the country. California's institutions also formed the most partnerships with institutions outside the US. Of course, a budget blueprint is just a president's wish list and an actual budget has to pass through Congress, which has largely rejected slashing funding for scientific research. The budget reconciliation for 2017 added money to federal science agencies. There is much trepidation among scientists about what cuts will pass Congress. “We are in a period of significant uncertainty,” says Randolph Hall, vice president of research at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. Jess Phoenix leads educational non-profit, Blueprint Earth, and is running for Congress. If federal funding is cut, California researchers will be looking for more money from the state's budget, foundations and industry. Corporate funding currently makes up about 5% of research money, and private foundations 5–10%. State funding ranges from 2% or less at private institutions like USC, up to 11% at the public University of California system. “While we might hope for these funds to rise in the future, it won't ever come close to the amount from federal funding agencies,” says Hall, who is also the incoming president of the University Industry Demonstration Partnership, an organization that enables interactions between industry and academia. People politics Research also requires a reliable supply of talented people. Universities are concerned that reviews of visa policies, such as the 90-day ban on travellers from six Muslim-majority nations, and the more recent restrictions on visitors from a revised list of seven countries may affect their ability to attract and retain the world's best researchers. When Trump's travel ban first went into effect in January 2017, Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis, was considering a candidate from Iran, one of the countries on the banned list, for a professor position. The selection panel decided that a different candidate was better qualified, but the administration's announcement raised many concerns about whether the suspension on travel barred them from hiring an Iranian. Reforms to the H-1B visa for highly skilled foreign workers could also hinder university recruitment. Universities in California employed more than 3,000 H-1B visa workers in 2015, according to the Office of Foreign Labor Certification. H-1B visas are becoming even more important for universities because fewer US citizens and permanent residents are pursuing advanced degrees in science. In 2014, 25% of the students enrolled in graduate programmes in the US were temporary residents, compared to 21% in 2000. “Universities would be impoverished and the ability to hire scientists would be reduced if the programme changed,” says Peri. In an analysis of US metro areas between 1990 and 2010, he found a 1% increase in the number of foreigners filling scientific and technical positions increased the average income of college-educated native workers by 5–6% in that area. The H-1B visa programme does not appear to be at immediate risk. But processing times have lengthened since the Department of Homeland Security suspended fast-track processing of H1-B applications in April 2017. State-level collaboration In 2016, institutions in California formed close to 9,500 bilateral partnerships with institutions across the country to co-author papers included in the index. The top 20 states that California institutions formed research links with are ranked by the number of bilateral partnerships. Global research hub California is the most collaborative state in the United States, forming the most domestic and international bilateral institutional partnerships. The top 10 most collaborative states in the country are ranked by their total number of bilateral partnerships. Run, scientists, run The current political climate has inspired some Californian researchers to look beyond the lab. Following the 2016 election, Phoenix found herself drawn into politics. She was dismayed to learn that her congressional representative, a member of the House Science Committee, does not believe that the federal government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In April 2017, she decided to challenge for the seat in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Days later, she spoke at a March for Science rally in Los Angeles defending scientific research and informed decision-making. “I'm 35. No-one else is going to get involved politically for me,” says Phoenix, who runs an educational non-profit called Blueprint Earth and is a fellow at New York-based professional science society, The Explorers Club. “Scientists have been shocked by the incompetence at every level of elected office.” Kevork Abazajian, a physicist studying the origins of the Universe at the University of California, Irvine, is also considering a run for city council — a local office. He hopes to get the town of Irvine to take more action on climate change, for one thing. “After the November election, scientists have been shocked by the degree of incompetence at almost every level of elected office,” he says. “There is a history of scientists going into elected office in other countries, and that's what we need more of.” Abazajian is also the California coordinator for 314 Action, a non-profit group that supports science-savvy candidates and policies. Since January, the group (whose name comes from the value of the mathematical constant π) has organized two training sessions in Washington DC and California for scientists interested in running for office. Training included fundraising and crafting a message that sticks with voters. “You have to be a good messenger,” says Abazajian. 314 Action has also supported stem cell researcher, Hans Keirstead, in California, along with volcanologist Phoenix, in their bids for Congress in 2018. Adding more scientists would shake up the decision-making process: currently only one of the 535 representatives and senators is a practising scientist with a doctoral degree — physicist, Bill Foster, of Illinois. “When California leads, the world follows,” says Phoenix. “Now, more than ever, we are called to bring truly representative democracy to the fore.” Search our job roles in California