The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Jan 30, 2006

"Yes, This Is Horrible, This Idea"

To all of those who worried about the United States’ dependence on Middle Eastern oil, who tried to raise awareness about dwindling global oil reserves, or who fought for decent fuel economy standards, you can all go home now. We found the answer: methane… methane hydrate. Boy were we misguided, thinking that renewable or clean energy sources might be a part of the solution. USA TODAY reports on humanity’s newfound salvation:
Scientists have discovered an undersea deposit of frozen methane just off the Southern California coast, but whether it can be harnessed as a potential energy source is unknown.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in tapping methane hydrates, ice-like crystals that form at low temperatures and high pressure in seabeds and in Arctic permafrost.

Scientists estimate that the methane trapped in previously known frozen reservoirs around the globe could power the world for centuries. But finding the technology to mine such deposits has proved elusive….

…In additional to technical problems standing in the way of mining methane hydrates, Hein said mining this deposit probably would be difficult because of its proximity to shipping lanes from Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Oh, and then of course there was the other issue, but it’s not very important—just a minor detail:
Some scientists also worry about the environmental effects of such large-scale gas deposits. Hydrates are estimated to contain about three times as much methane as is currently in the atmosphere, and some scientists say releasing it could lead to global warming and change the world's climate.

Some scientists” say it “could lead to global warming”? I’d like to meet the one credible scientist who says mining methane won’t influence climate change. Methane is a global warming double whammy: not only does burning it release the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, but methane itself is a greenhouse gas, one that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide!

I like this idea about as much as the “Jump to Conclusions mat” from the movie Office Space:
Tom Smykowski: It's a "Jump to Conclusions mat". You see, you have this mat, with different conclusions written on it that you could jump to.

Michael Bolton: That's the worst idea I've ever heard in my life, Tom.

Samir Nagheenanajar: Yes, this is horrible, this idea.

Speak No Evil

These guys are persistent. And, they’re pervasive.

However, the ideologues of the current administration apparently aren’t very persuasive, or at least not enough to keep NASA science superstar James Hansen from informing the public about the dangers of global warming.

They must find what he’s saying pretty persuasive, though, because they sure are trying hard to shut him up. The New York Times reports:
The top climate scientist at NASA says the Bush administration has tried to stop him from speaking out since he gave a lecture last month calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

The scientist, James E. Hansen, longtime director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists.

Dr. Hansen said he would ignore the restrictions. "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public," he said.

Hansen is up against something big, but luckily those trying to censor him don't seem very good at it. Here’s my favorite example:
In one call, George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen, said Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer responsible for the Goddard Institute.

Citing handwritten notes taken during the conversation, Ms. McCarthy said Mr. Deutsch called N.P.R. "the most liberal" media outlet in the country. She said that in that call and others, Mr. Deutsch said his job was "to make the president look good" and that as a White House appointee that might be Mr. Deutsch's priority.

But she added: "I'm a career civil servant and Jim Hansen is a scientist. That's not our job. That's not our mission. The inference was that Hansen was disloyal."

To be fair, NASA as an institution seems to be handling this in an alright manner so far, especially by allowing McCarthy, quoted above, to be interviewed by The New York Times. Hopefully this is just a case of a few bad seeds. If so, and if NASA is truly committed to the science and able to function with an acceptable amount of independence, it should be able to remove these administration lackeys—the only appropriate response here.

If not, then it’s really time to get worried about the state of science in the U.S.

Jan 29, 2006

The American Connection

The South Korean stem cell crisis isn’t over yet. Although a Seoul National University panel determined earlier in January that South Korean Hwang Woo Suk and several of his associates intentionally fabricated data, the jury is still out on Gerald P. Schatten, their American collaborator at the University of Pittsburg, where a panel is not expected to come to a decision on his role in the scientific fraud until sometime in February.

On Friday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a profile on Schatten and his role in the stem cell crisis. Although the author, Lila Guterman, was not able to elicit any comments from Schatten (his policy toward the media throughout the ordeal has been one of silence), the article provides detailed information on Schatten’s background, the extent of his involvement in the now discredited research, and on what the panel will likely find. The article paints Schatten as a tragic victim—driven by scientific curiosity, but naively swept along the by the idea that he would be a part of the group to revolutionize human medicine—and even as a whistle blower, being one of the first to question about Hwang’s work.

In March 2004, the research group led by Hwang reported in a seemingly groundbreaking Science paper that they had cloned several human embryos and derived a line of stem cells from one of them, a major breakthrough in an area that had hitherto remained elusive for scientists. They followed up their first success with a second Science paper in June 2005 reporting the formation of eleven embryonic stem cell lines derived by cloning patients with either an immunodeficiency disease, spinal cord injury, or juvenile diabetes.

Both papers were faked—a revelation coming after it first became clear that the human eggs used in the studies had been gathered by unethical means—and both were subsequently retracted. Schatten was not a coauthor on the first paper, but he was on the second. His connection to Hwang apparently extends much further, though, into the realm of friendship:
Just a few months ago, a collaboration between two prominent scientists from opposite sides of the world promised to change the future of medicine: A Korean and an American together claimed to have cloned human embryos from which they had developed stem-cell colonies tailored to individual patients.

Their relationship was so close that they called each other "my brother."…

A period of great excitement followed for both Mr. Schatten and Dr. Hwang. They became involved in setting up the World Stem Cell Hub, which would distribute Dr. Hwang's stem cells for other researchers to experiment with. In August they published a paper in the journal
Nature saying they had created the world's first cloned dog.

Insoo Hyun, an assistant professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, visited Dr. Hwang's lab last summer for three months. "Everything looked terrific," he recalls. When Mr. Schatten came to visit, he says, "It looked like they all were the best of friends. Hwang and Schatten were referring to each other as brothers."

But in November, Mr. Schatten publicly ended his association with Dr. Hwang, telling
Science that he had been misled by his Korean collaborators. He said the Korean researchers had taken eggs from women in an unethical manner -- an eerie echo of the Irvine scandal 10 years earlier.

The “Irvine scandal” refers to the ironically similar situation Schatten found himself in earlier in his career. In 1995, when he was a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he performed research on human eggs later found to have been unethically obtained. Schatten was cleared of any wrongdoing, having no role in the egg gathering and apparently no knowledge of the ethical lapses. Whether the fact that he has been associated with two similar scientific scandals is just incredibly bad luck or something worse remains to be seen. Hopefully the University of Pittsburg panel will shed some light on this. Is he just too trusting? Or, is he exceptionally adept at maintaining plausible deniability?

Interestingly, the panel will only investigate some, but not all, of the relevant papers:
Pittsburgh began investigating Mr. Schatten, at his own request, with a six-person panel that first met on December 14. Dr. Cibelli, of Michigan State, also requested an investigation into his own role in the 2004 paper, according to a spokeswoman at that university.

The Pittsburgh panel expects to conclude its work in February, according to a university spokeswoman. It is investigating the 2005
Science paper and the Nature paper about the cloned dog, even though the South Korean panel found the animal to be a real clone. The Pittsburgh panel is not investigating the 2004 paper on monkeys, in Developmental Biology. "I don't think there's any reason to question the authenticity of the data in that paper," says Dartmouth's Mr. Compton. "The experiments were performed in Pittsburgh."

The Developmental Biology paper, published in December 2004, is significant, though, because in it Schatten and his coauthors (which include Hwang) report the application of Hwang’s cloning and stem cell isolation techniques to non-humans, successfully cloning two types of monkeys. Schatten had already spent a large part of his career trying to clone a monkey, and had failed until the sudden success of this paper. With this in mind, the panel’s decision not to investigate this paper seems strange and misguided, regardless of where the research was done.

Funnily enough, the authors have already published one correction to the paper, but it was just to correct a fix error in one of the figure legends.

Beyond the interest in outright fraud, the South Korean stem cell scandal has also made the scientific community think about names—specifically whose name belongs where on a paper and whether it even belongs there at all:
Mr. Schatten's public modesty has led many American researchers to ask, Just what did Mr. Schatten do? Did he do enough to justify authorship of the now-retracted paper?

Many believe that he performed some analysis of the data and wrote the paper in English. (A member of the Korean team, Curie Ahn, declined a
Chronicle request for comment on Mr. Schatten's role.) If all he did was to write the paper, he should not have been named an author, according to convention. Mr. Bavister, of New Orleans, helped write the 2004 Science paper in English for the Korean group. "That alone does not deserve co-authorship, which is why I'm not a co-author," he says. The acknowledgments in that paper mention Mr. Bavister's help.

But Mr. Schatten's name appears last among the authors of the 2005
Science paper, a position normally reserved for the senior author who oversees the work and vouches for its accuracy. "As senior author, he's responsible for everything," says Rudolf Jaenisch, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"There's a lesson here," says Mr. Brinkley. "We should all be very, very cautious about lending our name to publications."

In order to help drive this point home, it seems, the editors of Science are now considering requiring each author on a paper to detail his or her specific contribution to the work. Whether Schatten deserves credit for the work is a legitimate question, although the evidence I have seen demonstrates that he did provide a sufficient intellectual contribution to be an author, at least by the current standards in the field. Whether these standards should stand, though, is a whole other issue. Regardless, requiring statements from each author couldn’t hurt.

The fact that Schatten’s name appears last in the list of authors does not seem particularly significant. As has been pointed out many times before, the first name is the most significant designation, generally reserved for the scientist who did the most work, and the last is reserved for the senior author in whose lab the work took place. In this case, though, both labels apply to Hwang, so naturally he was listed first. Because of that, the question over who should be listed last becomes much less significant.

Either way, Schatten was an author on a paper that was faked, so he should be investigated. All indications are that the University of Pittsburg panel will find no wrongdoing, allowing Schatten to continue his scientific career, although significantly hampered by the stigma this case has generated. However, without a more thorough investigation into all of the relevant studies, the issue can never be completely settled. Assuming that Schatten was guilty only of gullibility, it will be much more difficult for him to not learn the lesson he should have learned in 1995, now that he has seen just how costly such a lapse can be.

Jan 26, 2006

It's OK to Be a Little Evil

Google, whose motto is “Don’t be evil,” has decided that it doesn’t need to take this mantra so seriously anymore. Dollars trumping morals, the internet giant announced this week that it would launch a new censored search engine in China in order to reach a larger market.

Although many of its peers, including Yahoo and Microsoft, have participated in direct censorship in China for some time, Google has for the most part held out. What does Google have to say about its new philosophy?
While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission.

So, the new philosophy at Google appears to be “Don’t be evil… unless you have to be.” The company deserves some credit, though, because when Google censors, it censors in style. The BBC reports:
Google hopes its new address will make the search engine easier to use and quicker.

Its e-mail, chat room and blogging services will not be available because of concerns the government could demand users' personal information.

Google said it planned to notify users when access had been restricted on certain search terms.

The company argues it can play a more useful role in China by participating than by boycotting it, despite the compromises involved.

Although the recent move may help Google avoid some government harassment in China, it might make things a bit more complicated back in the U.S., where the Justice Department—once again demonstrating how much the U.S. really values privacy and free speech more than those bad people over in China—filed a lawsuit last week against Google for failing to give up demanded information on individual users’ internet searches.

Google has so far taken the high road in this case (unlike AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft, who all caved in), but the hypocrisy here is pretty obvious. “Don’t be evil... but only in America?”

I have a love/hate relationship with Google. Like many other people I know, I can’t function normally without it, but I don’t really like the idea of Google storing data on my latest search for old Guns N’ Roses lyrics, or anything else for that matter. In fact I’m a little bit scared of Google.

I don’t fear Google like I fear nuclear war, the monster under my bed, or John Ashcroft—no, that’s pure terror. It’s more that I fear Google kind of like I fear Yellow Tail wine, Australia’s most recent dubious export to the U.S. Sure, it seems harmless. In fact, I’ve been known to enjoy a glass or two. However, for something so mediocre, so exceptionally unexceptional, it has done incredibly well for itself… almost too well… and now it is completely ubiquitous in America’s low-price wine market.

If only it could help me think of the name of that guy I saw in that movie that was on TV the other night. Then it would definitely be worth keeping around.

Jan 25, 2006

Stem Cell Drama

Embryonic stem cell research is hot right now—really hot—but it’s not easy. The South Korean stem cell crisis might be a minor setback, more relevant to basic scientific ethics issues, but the Bush administration’s policy toward embryonic stem cells is not trivial and has already had far reaching consequences.

The recent New York Times interview with prominent Harvard stem cell researcher Douglas Melton touches on all of these issues. Melton, who focuses his research on potential treatments for diabetes, describes an environment stifled by unnecessary regulation. When asked about the effect of the Bush ban on federal funding for research involving new embryonic stem cell lines, Melton said:
It made it more difficult, to say the least. Long before Bush's speech, we had planned stem cell experiments. Afterward, we were able to go forward because the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Association and Harvard alumni provided private funding.

However, because of administration policy, we had to set up this whole new laboratory that was separate from everything else here at Harvard.

And we had to separate the money in a really scrupulous way. We have an accountant who makes sure that not a penny of federal funds goes to embryonic stem cell research. We have separate everything - light bulbs, computers, centrifuges.

This can be burdensome. Most of the activities at this university receive federal money in some indirect way. So you have to ask yourself, "How can you do the research without any imprint of federal funding?"

And we're not just talking about equipment and real estate; it's people. Let's suppose there's a graduate student who's receiving a federally funded fellowship, can he or she participate in thinking about this research or even look at the data? The answer is no.

Although I love being a scientist, I’ll admit that doing science can be pretty difficult as is, having to deal with the intellectual and practical challenges of the research itself, grants and funding, and the rules and regulations already in place. Additional restrictions on top of these can be damning, especially in a field characterized by an active and integral exchange of ideas and resources. Such difficulties could also make promising students look toward other more accessible areas of research:
The lack of federal support keeps many of America's brightest young scientists from working in this area….

…The bottom line here is that it's unlikely that one person or one lab will solve a problem as big as degenerative diseases, which is what stem cell researchers are trying to do.

It takes a community of people in an area to solve a big problem. If you were trying to solve cancer at two places, no one would think that was enough.

This policy needs to change, but the current administration turns a deaf ear toward the American public, the majority of which support funding for embryonic stem cell research. This stubbornness will weaken the United States, a nation that has become complacent in its leading position in worldwide science and has already begun to lose its edge. More importantly, though, the science will suffer and the medical potential of embryonic stem cell research will be not be realized fully, or at least not nearly as quickly as it could have been.

Jan 24, 2006

Partisan Neurons

Now I have an excuse for my behavior the next time I get into a bitter political debate: I can’t help being defensive—it’s hardwired into me!

Those are the findings, at least, of a recent study led by psychologist Drew Westen, as reported by The New York Times today.
Using M.R.I. scanners, neuroscientists have now tracked what happens in the politically partisan brain when it tries to digest damning facts about favored candidates or criticisms of them. The process is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, the researchers report, and there are flares of activity in the brain's pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected.

"Everything we know about cognition suggests that, when faced with a contradiction, we use the rational regions of our brain to think about it, but that was not the case here," said Dr. Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory and lead author of the study, to be presented Saturday at meetings of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Palm Springs, Calif….

….After the participants read the contradictory comment, the researchers measured increased activity in several areas of the brain. They included a region involved in regulating negative emotions and another called the cingulate, which activates when the brain makes judgments about forgiveness, among other things. Also, a spike appeared in several areas known to be active when people feel relieved or rewarded. The "cold reasoning" regions of the cortex were relatively quiet.

Who would have thought that political dialogue could be emotionally charged and not based on fact or reason? Leading up to the 2004 election, I really believed that a draft dodger would be a better wartime president than a war hero. Totally rational.

Okay, maybe not, but I still want to believe that my political philosophy (and mine alone, naturally) is completely and totally rational. At the same time, these results would explain a lot, and, at the very least, maybe now I can truly appreciate conservative talk radio.

It gets better, though. In their own scientific ode to the GOP propaganda machine, the researchers reached their conclusions by studying what we learned in 2004 was the single greatest problem facing our nation: flip-flopping!
In 2004, the researchers recruited 30 adult men who described themselves as committed Republicans or Democrats. The men, half of them supporters of President Bush and the other half backers of Senator John Kerry, earned $50 to sit in an M.R.I. machine and consider several statements in quick succession.

The first was a quote attributed to one of the two candidates: either a remark by Mr. Bush in support of Kenneth L. Lay, the former Enron chief, before he was indicted, or a statement by Mr. Kerry that Social Security should be overhauled. Moments later, the participants read a remark that showed the candidate reversing his position. The quotes were doctored for maximum effect but presented as factual.

That sounds oddly familiar. At least we know that if their careers in psychology don’t pan out, these researchers could have a promising future with the GOP.

Jan 23, 2006

Their Hearts Might Be in the Wrong Place...

...But it's hard to argue with this!

When I think of the reasons to curb greenhouse gas emissions—and I can think of quite a few—helping the economy generally doesn't top my list. In fact, the effort to save the environment often takes the form of a battle against corporate interests. It may be time to rethink that idea, as the LA Times reports today that two separate groups of economists have found that California's new plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may actually be good for its economy.

California, the 12th largest greenhouse gas producer in the world, is currently considering a draft of a Schwarzenegger-backed plan that is apparently one of the most ambitious long-term plans in the world, with one of its goals to by mid-century reduce greenhouse gases to 80% of the level they were at in 1990. Although, as expected, businesses have not embraced this idea, two recent studies, one from UC Berkeley and the other from the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington, DC, show that they should consider changing their stance.

The new studies demonstrate that the new plan would actually improve the California economy by protecting it from the economic damage global warming would cause, increasing fuel economy, and creating new jobs in the technology sector:
The Berkeley report found that the cost savings on fuel and gas generated by curbing greenhouse gases would translate into more money for consumers and more jobs. In addition, they predicted that investment in technology to reduce greenhouse gases could pay off for the state in the way that investment in computer technology has paid off for Silicon Valley.

The Center for Clean Air Policy's report found that the state could meet its 2010 emissions reduction goals at no cost to consumers and that they would save money if the 2020 goals were met. The study described a number of cost-effective ways to cut emissions, including capturing methane from landfills and manure and using it to generate energy, and switching freight transport from diesel trucks to rail.

This highlights an important point: you don't have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to be an environmentalist. For many, an interest in protecting the environment comes not from the heart but from a rational desire to secure a successful future (or any future for that matter) for humankind.

These studies come on the heels of another U.S. study, which found that the U.S. ranks 28th in terms of environmental performance, behind the other major western powers. Although the study gave the U.S.—the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter—a lot of credit, results such as these should make anyone think critically about our environmental policy. Still, the business lobby remains unfazed, but the new studies could possibly make some rethink their stance.

As an environmentalist myself, I like where this is going, although large corporations have not given me much of a reason to concern myself with saving them money, especially when they flagrantly resist any progress that could hurt the bottom line:
The climate team is planning to submit a final report to the governor in mid-February. Because of complaints from business leaders, state officials extended the public comment period on the report until Jan. 31 and will hold open hearings today in Sacramento and Tuesday in Los Angeles to gather more information on economic aspects.

"We must ensure that California's ability to create and retain jobs is not compromised through this process," Allan Zaremberg said in a statement. He is president of the California Chamber of Commerce and a member of a new coalition formed to ensure that climate regulations do not harm business.

Other members of the new group, called Sustainable Environment and Economy in California, include the California Farm Bureau Federation, Western Growers, the California Nevada Cement Promotional Council, the Western States Petroleum Assn., the Rubber Manufacturers Assn. and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The two new analyses agree with the state draft report in suggesting that many industry fears are unfounded.

Regardless, if the new policy is good for the economy, good for the environment, and good for the general public, then it's pretty hard to argue against it. Continued action in opposition would indicate not only that the opponents do not care about the environment, but also do not have much of an interest in their long-run prospects. This should not be surprising, since if we sell out the environment for short-term gain today, the future is really immaterial.

Jan 22, 2006

Science and Politics Interview

Check out Bloggasm’s interview with Bora Zivkovic, who has a great blog called Science and Politics that, as the name implies, will probably be of interest to readers of my blog as well. The interview features good advice for blogging in science and politics and a nice summary of the conservative movement against science.

He breaks down the players in the “war against science” into three categories: religious conservatives who fear science for obvious reasons, business leaders who try to prevent or discredit scientific information that would lead to regulation of their activities, and Republican politicians who pander to the first two groups to gain votes:
So, conservatives for whom either God, or Money, or Power are more important than the future of the world we are leaving to our grandchildren, will fight against science. Those who are not slaves to these three gods are quite fine with science and even try to fight for it. They are just, for the moment, marginalized and hushed within their party, but that is bound to change. Laws of nature do not care about our political preferences and the facts will, in the end, force even the most indoctrinated to deal with reality.

I like where he is going with this, but I don’t know if knowledge naturally trumps ignorance on its own, even though it should. More likely, it will take outspoken scientific advocates to protect scientific education and progress, which is something that Bora probably believes as well since he is so active in this area. Although it often seems in retrospect that social change or new ideas happened because they were correct, behind any of these you will find activists who worked tirelessly for this progress. The same will probably be true for turning back the anti-science tide currently coming from the political right.

Jan 21, 2006

Universal Health Care, Duh!

I had a great trip to the doctor the other day. I showed up for my appointment (one I had made only one day before), waited a few minutes, saw the doctor, and then I left. There was no paperwork, no long wait, no money exchanged, and no stress. Basically, there was nothing standing in the way of what I had come there for—medical care.

And, no, I don’t live in some fantasy world.

I live in England.

I love universal health care, and for me it’s because of the small things. I never had any major problems with my health insurance in the U.S., but I still had to fill out a ton of paperwork every time I went to the doctor, I couldn’t always see the doctor I wanted to see, and I had to pay those really annoying co-payments. At least I had health insurance in the U.S., though, unlike over the millions of people left without coverage in the richest nation in the world. For these people, universal health care isn’t about convenience: it’s about life and death.

Even people with health care coverage in the U.S. are having trouble. The Bush administration’s new prescription drug plan went into effect recently, and it has gone about as well as a doctor trying to save a shark attack victim with a Band-Aid, while denying access to any other treatment. Today The New York Times described the effect the drug plan is having on the mentally ill:
On the seventh day of the new Medicare drug benefit, Stephen Starnes began hearing voices again, ominous voices, and he started to beg for the medications he had been taking for 10 years. But his pharmacy could not get approval from his Medicare drug plan, so Mr. Starnes was admitted to a hospital here for treatment of paranoid schizophrenia.

Mr. Starnes, 49, lives in Dayspring Village, a former motel that is licensed by the State of Florida as an assisted living center for people with mental illness. When he gets his medications, he is stable.

"Without them," he said, "I get aggravated at myself, I have terrible pain in my gut, I feel as if I am freezing one moment and burning up the next moment. I go haywire, and I want to hurt myself."

Although this case, and the many others like it, will probably be unique to the current transition period, some changes will be more permanent:
At Dayspring Village, in the northeast corner of Florida near Jacksonville, the 80 residents depend heavily on medications. They line up for their medicines three times a day. Members of the staff, standing at a counter, dispense the pills through a window that looks like the ticket booth at a movie theater.

Most of the residents are on Medicare, because they have disabilities, and Medicaid, because they have low incomes. Before Jan. 1, the state's Medicaid program covered their drugs at no charge. Since then, the residents have been covered by a private insurance company under contract to Medicare.

For the first time, residents of Dayspring Village found this month that they were being charged co-payments for their drugs, typically $3 for each prescription. The residents take an average of eight or nine drugs, so the co-payments can take a large share of their cash allowance, which is $54 a month.

Capricious changes in fees and access are just some of the problems that arise from a market-based health care system. This system also relies on employers to pay for the health insurance of their employees, which can put a strain on small businesses. It also makes some unfortunate people dependent on companies that refuse to pay an adequate amount for health care, including Wal-Mart, the target of a recently passed Maryland law that forces Wal-Mart to finally pay up.

In the end, market-based or private health insurance is inefficient and costly. Private insurance companies spend 13% of their income on profit and overhead, as opposed to government programs, which spend none of their funds on profits and only 1-2% on overhead. The U.S. spends more than twice as much per person on health care than the next highest spender, yet the U.S. can also boast over 40 million uninsured people (see the Physicians for a National Health Program site for more background).

Just take a moment and imagine what would happen if we took the money that we currently spend on a private health care system and put it into a new national health care system. Not only would millions of people no longer have to go without health care, but we wouldn’t have to deal with any of the really annoying stuff we seem to take for granted. It would undeniably be the greatest health care system in the world. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Jan 19, 2006

A Hot Topic

Today’s issue of Nature features several interesting articles about the effects of global warming. Two are research articles, with one revising estimates of the expected increase in sea level due to global warming and the other demonstrating how certain important marine ecosystems could be vulnerable to changes in ocean currents due to global warming. The journal also contains an editorial and a news feature about the need to monitor ocean currents more closely to better assess the consequences of global warming and to warn us of impending climate shifts.

One of the most obvious effects of global warming will be an increase in sea levels, both from melting snow and ice and the natural tendency of water to expand slightly as it warms up. In “Low sea level rise projections from mountain glaciers and icecaps under global warming,” scientists Sarah Raper and Roger Braithwaite provide a more conservative prediction for the expected increase in sea level over the next century. According to the sources used in the paper, current models vary, but the average predicted increase over the next century is 0.387 meters (just over 15 inches). Although about 60% of the increase is expected to come from water expansion, this study focuses specifically on sea level rise due to melting mountain glaciers and icecaps.

Although previous models predict a contribution of 0.106 meters in sea level increase from mountain glaciers and icecaps, this paper cuts that estimate in half. The rationale for this is that the authors in the current study accounted for changing patterns in snowfall, with increased snowfall in some areas expected to slow the melting process. The study is interesting and rigorous, but even if the results are correct, this would only reduce the total expected sea level increase by roughly 10%, and an increase in the sea level of 12 or 13 inches instead of 15 inches would still be very significant.

An ongoing themes in climate change research is that global warming can manifest itself in a variety of ways (see my previous post on this topic). In “Reduced mixing generates oscillations and chaos in the oceanic deep chlorophyll maximum,” scientists Jef Huisman, Nga Pham Thi, David Karl, and Ben Sommeijer model variation in the deep cholophyll maximum (DCM), an important layer of plankton around 100 meters below the surface of the ocean, and they find that it is much less stable than originally thought, a finding which has important implications for global warming:
Climate models predict that global warming will increase the stability of the vertical stratification in large parts of the oceans. This will reduce vertical mixing and suppress the upward flux of nutrients, leading to a decline in oceanic primary production. Our model predicts that the same process of reduced vertical mixing may induce oscillations and chaos in the phytoplankton of the DCM, generated by the difference in timescale between the sinking flux of phytoplankton and the upward flux of nutrients. Thus, counter-intuitively, increased stability of the water column due to global warming may destabilize the phytoplankton dynamics in the DCM, with implications for oceanic primary production, species composition and carbon export.

What exactly the broader implications of a change in the DCM would be remain unknown, but such jarring disruptions to natural ecosystems are rarely good.

The current issue of Nature also features an editorial and news piece on the potential for global warming to cause drastic weather and climate changes by shutting down thermohaline circulation, the scenerio that was recently dramatized into the film The Day After Tomorrow. It is thermohaline circulation in the Atlantic Ocean, for example, that carries warm water northward, allowing Europe to enjoy a relatively mild climate for its latitude. Although the editorial is lukewarm to the potential for major climate changes, it calls for governments and scientists to step up efforts to monitor this phenomenon more closely worldwide. The news feature by Quirin Schiermeier, called “Climate change: a sea change” goes into much more detail on the issue.
Other possible effects of a shutdown predicted by models include warming in the tropics, or, rather surprisingly, over Alaska and Antarctica. Rainfall patterns might change, too. A southern shift of the thermal equator — which has accompanied thermohaline circulation shutdowns during ice ages — could lead to monsoon failures, and droughts in Asia and the Sahel region, says Severinghaus, and these effects seem to be independent of sea ice. Such shifts could have severe consequences for poor farmers in many parts of the world, consequences that may be considerably more disruptive than colder winters in affluent northern Europe, says Severinghaus. And, as Schlesinger points out, a weakening or stopping of the thermohaline circulation would reduce the carbon dioxide uptake of the ocean, which would mean a positive feedback on global warming. The oceans currently absorb about a third of the carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels, although the proportion is set to decrease as emissions climb.

Clearly, we do not understand all of the effects global warming could have on our planet, which is a reason to be even more cautious than we already are, not less. Although global warming is a very timely topic and a source of numerous ongoing research projects, this week was particularly interesting. Hopefully the pace of research will continue to increase, giving us a better idea of just what kind of an effect we are having on our environment and how we can change to counteract this.

Supreme Court Leaves Medical Marijuana Out in the Cold

Which of the following does not belong?
(a) abortion
(b) medical marijuana
(c) physician-assisted suicide

Although all three are contentious and litigious medical issues, the answer seems to be choice (b), medical marijuana, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On January 17, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Gonzales v. Oregon that the U.S. Attorney General did not have the authority to criminalize the prescription of lethal doses of drugs, currently allowed under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, originally approved in 1994. The act, approved again in a second referendum in 1997, allows for physician-assisted suicide in cases where the patient is an adult, not expected to live longer than six months due to terminal illness, and is deemed competent to make decisions on his or her own care. In addition to these safeguards, the patient must also make multiple verbal and written requests for the prescription, be evaluated by a second physician, be informed of alternatives to physician-assisted suicide, and must inform his or her next of kin.

For advocates of privacy rights and especially those against undue government interference in health and medicine, this ruling is great news. Through the end of 2004, only 208 people had used the Oregon law to end their lives, meaning the law has not hurt the state in any way but has let a few terminally ill patients end their suffering. Despite the victory, this optimism should be tempered with some caution as well.

In its analysis on the ruling, The New York Times warns against over interpreting the ruling, and rightly so. The ruling only determined that Attorney General John Ashcroft, the original plaintiff on the case, had overstepped his authority, rejecting his argument that the Controlled Substances Act gave him jurisdiction over the case. Although this case may open the door to similar death with dignity laws in other states, it will not open a floodgate. The Supreme Court did not explicitly rule on the legality of physician-assisted suicide, leaving it in legal limbo for the time being, and Oregon remains the only state to have legalized physician-assisted suicide, with voters yet to approve such a measure in any other state.

It was in its original coverage of this story, though, that The New York Times almost caught the more interesting significance of this ruling:
Chief Justice Roberts did not write a dissenting opinion of his own, instead signing a dissent written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote a dissenting opinion, in which he observed that it was "perplexing to say the least" to find the court interpreting federal drug law narrowly in this instance when only months ago it had upheld broad federal authority to prevent states from authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The New York Times left it at that, but that one quote stood out to me as possibly the most important in the article (and not just because it may be the only time you’ll see me openly agree with Clarence Thomas). The question of “Why not?” regarding medical marijuana has two sides: a legal side and a scientific side. In this post I’ll briefly touch on both of these, but I’ll return to the scientific question in much more detail in a later post.

The science behind medical marijuana is compelling but still inconclusive in many areas. Marijuana can improve the quality of life some patients, primarily by relieving pain and discomfort, particularly in patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Although marijuana has also received a large amount of attention in its potential for treating certain aspects of multiple sclerosis, the research there is much less conclusive. When it comes to the side effects of marijuana, much less is known, and the common knowledge in this area is based much more on anti-drug propaganda than science. Smoking of any type can be linked to lung ailments and marijuana may be linked to psychosis, although addiction to marijuana is not a major concern. While these side effects, if they exist, take a long time to develop, the short term effects of marijuana are relatively benign. At the very least, medical marijuana would undoubtedly be appropriate for terminally ill patients, and possibly for adults suffering from other conditions as well.

An alternative to marijuana could be marijuana-based cannabinoid drugs, and a search of the recent literature reveals that this is a promising area of research. Although the safety of drugs developed in this way would probably be greater than pure marijuana, they would surely be much more expensive, especially compared to a patient growing his or her own marijuana. In addition, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration basically giving “herbal supplements” a free license to make unsubstantiated and wild claims in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration, the strict regulation of marijuana seems inconsistent. The U.S. would need to strengthen its regulation of these products and relax its regulations of marijuana to erase this double standard.

The legal environment surrounding medical marijuana is just as interesting, and although the case for marijuana in this arena seems to be more clearly laid out, the U.S. government appears to follow a double standard here as well. On June 5, 2005, in its ruling on Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court upheld the federal government’s assertion that the Controlled Substances Act allowed it to regulate medical marijuana and not exceed its powers under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This effectively struck down California’s Proposition 215, which was passed in 1996. This was an odd ruling, since Angel Raich grew her own marijuana (not participating in any interstate commerce) and demonstrated a compelling need for medical marijuana. Consistent with his views quoted above, Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion in the 6-3 ruling.

Although abortion is not related to the Controlled Substance Act, it is another example where the federal government has taken the preferred hands-off approach to medicine. Despite constant attacks on this fundamental right, the government has for the most part recognized that the decision to have an abortion is a medical one, between a patient and her doctor. Interestingly, the Supreme Court just handed down a ruling on abortion that was unexceptional except in maintaining the current state of the law. The ruling, announced on January 18, was not a major victory for either side of the abortion debate, because although the Court ruled that a lower court could not strike down a restrictive New Hampshire abortion law—one which requires parental notification for minors seeking an abortion—it also ruled that the court could strike down parts of the law for not including health and safety exceptions to the law.

Although much more scientific research will need to be conducted to determine when the use of medical marijuana is most appropriate, its use in some cases, namely for terminally ill patients, already seems justified. In the meantime, while the legal environment seems promising for its acceptance, various double standards show that the U.S. government will also have to change its attitude or will be unlikely to accept medical marijuana, even in the face of compelling scientific evidence. While I admit that there are some trained physicians in the federal government, I can think of one, at least, who has shown himself completely inept at diagnosing patients from afar (Senator Bill Frist on the condition of Terri Schiavo), so at this point, we’re probably better off letting the doctors meeting patients face-to-face make the medical decisions.

Jan 16, 2006

Are All Animals Equal?

This post began as a response to a comment a friend left on my last post, “Caught in the Line of Fire”, but once I started I got carried away. Included in my friend’s comment was a link to the article “All Animals Are Equal” by the philosopher Peter Singer, which was an interesting read that appealed strongly to the humanitarian in me, and I would recommend taking a look at it. On the other hand, its foundation in science was shaky, and I found several problems, which I discuss below. I believe that humans have a responsibility to be humane, respectful, and caring to one another, to other animals, and to nature and the environment in general. At the same time, I believe that it does us all a disservice to ignore the basic cold hard facts of nature, something that Singer had to do to build his argument.

While I found Singer’s article well-written and skillfully argued, it felt contrived, particularly in his use of the term “speciesism.” Although I do not feel that the state of something in nature justifies it ethically, I was bothered by Singer was implying that “speciesism,” discrimination based on species, is a strictly human phenomenon (although he did not explicitly state this). One would have to go out of one’s way to ignore such a statement in a discussion like Singer’s, so at the very least he left out an inconvenient fact. Of course, every animal species practices “speciesism,” putting the survival of its own species above the survival of any other. In fact all lifeforms do this, acting primarily out of self interest, not just animals—plants, fungi, protozoa, and of course bacteria. Acting out of self interest does not require harming other species, and many species engage in mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, but harming other species is never out of the question in the natural world. Nature is beautiful in its complexity and amazing in its ability to host life at all, but it is also exceedingly cruel. With that said, its ubiquitous presence in nature does not automatically justify “speciesism” (or any other type of violence, discrimination, or self-interest). Still, it is important to acknowledge that Singer’s article was misleading on this point.

The main argument against Singer follows from one he used himself, the difficult process of determining where we draw the line. The title of the article is “All Animals are Equal,” but I doubt he really means that. He lists many cute and furry animals, but he does not state a position on reptiles or amphibians, for example. They don’t seem that much like humans, but they share a large number of similarities to mammals in basic behaviors and structures. Okay, then what about fish? Sure, that’s pushing it, but why not? Then we should probably include insects and other invertebrates, which also animals. At that point there is no reason to stop with the animal kingdom, making everything is fair game. Why not? Each group has large similarities to another group related a step closer to humans. Even drawing the line at vertebrates, for example, is tricky, since the boundary is not always clear. Sea squirts, for example, live their early days as mobile animals with containing the precursor to a spinal cord, but they later settle down into a sedentary lifestyle more closely resembling that of a plant, or at least a sponge. It’s very clear that there are few distinct boundaries in nature (the boundaries between species can be distinct, as with the division between humans and their closest animal relatives, but not always), and Singer himself never states where he believes the boundary should exist.

Another question is that of whether with equal rights come equal responsibilities. It would be extremely difficult and absolutely unfair for humans to enforce our laws (or even very basic human values) on other animal societies, where sexism and violence, for example, are prevalent in everyday life. Of course I do not believe animals have to conform to such ideals to earn our respect, but then again it is difficult to consider them equals under such circumstances. Mammals more closely related to humans, such as chimpanzees, can approximate human behaviors and understanding in many ways, and that is something we should give a great deal of consideration. Is conducting any research on these mammals inhumane? It’s possible, and we should have a more open dialogue in our society about this. When animal rights activists call all animal research torture and Singer calls all animals “equals,” though, having this dialogue becomes much more difficult. This is what I meant in my last post, when I described the animal rights activists I met as having an “extreme ideology.” Refusing to recognize these basic differences between species is highly irrational.

I also had some additional minor criticisms of the article. Singer invokes the unattractive idea of a human society built on a hierarchy based on I.Q.s as similar to “discriminating” between different species. What he does not acknowledge is that while I.Q.s are a very poor measure of human ability, and no completely objective measure of human ability or worth exists, we can determine with 100% certainty whether an animal is a human, and this identification has an objective basis in science. Later in the article Singer even describes eating as a way “to satisfy trivial interests of our own,” but I doubt many people would agree that eating is trivial, since one will soon perish from not engaging in this activity. I do appreciate him mentioning the cruel treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and elsewhere in agriculture, though, which is an issue that deserves much more consideration from society.

In the end, while I found the article thoughtful and an interesting read, it is fundamentally flawed in the ways outlined above. I agree with animal rights activists insofar as the humaneness of animal research needs to be vigilantly maintained, and while I think we have great framework for this in our society, I see no reason why it can’t be improved, and I believe we should have a more open dialogue on this. However, demanding an end to all animal research, along with calling animals our equals, is counterproductive and will probably lead to none of these ends being accomplished.

Jan 15, 2006

Caught in the Line of Fire: Animal Rights Activists Take Over Oxford

When I walked outside this Saturday, January 14, it was clear that something was going on in Oxford. Although the heavy gray sky, cold wind, and wet ground were nothing out of the ordinary, a sea of fluorescent yellow police uniforms dominated the landscape. The entire science area was gated off, entry only allowed at two highly guarded points. Tension was in the air.

Actually, I didn’t even need to leave my building to know what was going on, as I was greeted at the door by a new poster:


Later that afternoon, the animal rights group SPEAK would be holding a national demonstration in Oxford, and a fear of potentially violent activity had motivated the extensive security presence. Although the numbers would be much larger than normal, animal rights protesters are a common site in Oxford, and have been since March 2004, when construction began on a new biomedical research center where animal research will take place. Although progress on the building had stalled for 18 months—due to intimidation tactics by the animal rights groups, including threats to the contractor and its workers—construction resumed at the end of November 2005. Although the University of Oxford claims that the new building will only consolidate current research and provide more humane facilities, the protesters have latched onto this new more tangible symbol of animal research.

The presence of such security, although excessive, was understandable, since animal rights groups in Oxford have resorted to destructive tactics in the past. Last year, on July 4, the Animal Liberation Front burned down an Oxford boathouse causing damage estimated at ₤500,000, later warning in its statement claiming responsibility for the attack that nothing the University of Oxford owns is off limits. Although the SPEAK leadership denied involvement, it also refused to condemn the action. SPEAK could be construed as showing additional support for violent acts by publishing photos online of the construction workers (who mask their faces to protect their identities) and writing threatening letters to contractors and others associated with the building project.

If repetition alone were enough to spur someone into action, turning on his or her own peers, the new research center would have long ago been torn down by a clambering mass of biochemists, chemists, environmental scientists, pathologists, and plant scientists—following the incessant cries of “Stop the Oxford Animal Lab!” repeated over and over again through a loudspeaker just outside their windows all day every Thursday. So far that hasn’t happened, though, so the demonstration went on as planned.

At about 12:30, I turned the corner onto Broad Street, where the demonstrators were gathering. I was immediately struck by the boundary of yellow-clad police officers surrounding the protesters. In fact, the number of security personnel, members of the media, and casual observers may have surpassed that of actual demonstrators, but more protesters arrived over the next hour, carrying signs with such slogans as “vivisection is scientific fraud” and “we cannot cure humans by torturing animals.”

“It’s just people taking photographs of other people taking photographs of them,” noted Charlie Taylor, a graduate student studying biochemistry at Oxford, observing the large proliferation of cameras at the demonstration. In addition to the media and the protesters trying to document the occasion, even a few police officers sported some very nice cameras that succeeded in giving me an acute case of camera envy.

Then the speakers began, with the leader of the protest attempting to rile up the crowd. “We can think for ourselves, be unpredictable, and take the fight to you,” he yelled. “If you think I’m trying to incite people, that’s exactly what I’m doing.” After the crowed had been excited, the organizers lined the protesters up to begin marching.

By the time the march began, I estimated a crowd of about 300 to 400 people, well short of SPEAK’s stated goal of 600 people. The march proceeded at a lazy pace down Broad Street and on to Park Road, boxed in by police officers, but somehow I was swept away with it—an Oxford scientists’ worst nightmare.

Things didn’t get interesting, though, until the demonstration turned onto South Parks Road, the street leading to the biomedical research center construction site. Blocking the street halfway down South Parks Road was a makeshift metal fence backed up by about 25 police officers, some on horseback, with more on the way. The protesters had different plans, though, and as soon as they reached the fence things really heated up. The fence went down almost immediately as clashes between officers and protesters broke out. The protesters succeeded in driving the line back 10 to 20 meters before their progress halted.

The speakers soon started again, including the leader of the protest, two other animal rights activist, and an Oxford alumnus. While alumnus Matthew Simpson was more philosophical and insightful, the other speakers focused most of their energy toward inciting the crowd, insulting the police, and even making thinly veiled threats.

“I’m going to use telepathy here because I want them to think about what’s got us here, and I’m not just talking about demonstrations and listening to speakers,” said speaker John Curtain, describing the success the animal rights movement had in stalling construction on the building. “I have to use telepathy because I can’t say these things out loud, since they have an injunction against us.”

As the speeches went on, protesters continued to clash with police, causing the police to eventually bring in backup officers in riot gear. Although the clashes demonstrated a need for a police presence on South Parks Road to prevent the protesters from attacking the biomedical research center, the enormous numbers of officers present in general seemed unnecessary, and probably intended to intimidate the protesters. With that said, the police showed great restraint in the face of constant taunting. I did not even witness any arrests, although the BBC reported five.

Eventually, the leader instructed the protesters to head back into town, toward the Oxford town hall. Tensions had decreased considerably by this point, and I was able to talk to several of the protesters and observers. Earlier, I had noticed that although there were some people of roughly university student age in the demonstration, the average age of the protesters was about 40. None of the protesters I talked to were students at the University of Oxford, but I did find some who were watching the protests.

“I understand what they’re trying to say,” one student said, “but I’m not personally against animal research.”

According to another student, the protest was “quite powerful.” However, she noted that she believes the decision comes down to whether we are going to cure cancer or not, and she chooses the former.

The first student later added “I’m amazed at their dedication, but I would like to see it directed somewhere else.”

Amanda Sullivan had traveled to Oxford from London for a different reason: she was here to keep an eye on her daughter, Hanna, a secondary school student who wanted to participate in the protests. Although she was not an active participant in the protest and was not sure exactly where she stood on the issue, she added that “nobody wants an animal to suffer.” Sullivan was unsure whether the protest would be effective because the protesters were so aggressive. Instead, she thought the way her daughter, a vegan (someone who does not consume or use animal products), had gone about it was much more effective, constantly approaching her mother with new information.

“See, I’m even wearing vegan boots today,” Sullivan said, pointing at otherwise unremarkable footwear. When asked what they were made of, though, she conceded that she didn’t know. Still, her point is interesting, since some studies have demonstrated that fear, a tool used extensively by the animal rights activists, can be effective at compelling people into action, but only those already converted. Those who are undecided or against a cause are rarely won over using fear tactics.

That’s bad news for the animal rights activists, since a recent poll conducted in December 2005 by the Research Defense Society showed that 55% of people in the United Kingdom support the use of animals in medical research. The support at The University of Oxford is much higher. A poll conducted by the Cherwell, an Oxford student newspaper, in November 2005 found that 86% of students support animal research and 84.8% believe that the new biomedical research building should be completed. If one of the goals of SPEAK and other groups is to win people over, then they are not likely to enjoy much success, at least not if they continue using the same tactics. Of course, if they are only interested in achieving goals by intimidating researchers and workers, then they might enjoy more success in that arena.

I was able to interview several protesters, although all but one insisted on remaining anonymous. With a few minor differences, they shared similar views on most of the issues at hand, although they varied in some key ways from the leaders of the demonstration. All of the protesters I talked to were vegetarians or vegans, and they attended the protest because they were against almost any use of animals in general.

Since SPEAK heavily features primate research in its literature, using particularly graphic pictures, I assumed that the demonstration participants would make a distinction between primate research, which is fairly rare, and mouse research, which is much more common. That wasn’t the case.

“All animals are the same. All animals are capable of feeling suffering,” said one anonymous protester.

Although this view is consistent with their personal philosophies, it brings up an interesting question. Why does SPEAK rely so heavily on attacking primate research? This is especially misleading, since according to the University of Oxford, 98% of the animals in the new biomedical research center will be rodents or fish. This is true for animal research in general, the vast majority of which is conducted on mice.

I also expected that many of the protesters would have a bias against funding scientific research in general, but this was not the case either. In fact, the protesters I talked to seemed worried that animal research was taking away funding from more important research. Since less than one-fourth of biomedical research involves animals, though, that is unlikely, especially since animal research yields important information that scientists cannot find in other ways.

When asked whether they would take medications that had been developed through animal testing, most of the protesters I talked to said that they would.

“Refusing medication doesn’t do anything,” said one anonymous protester. “If that person died he couldn’t protest anymore.” Another said that she would have to take the drugs due to a lack of alternatives. On the other hand, Anne Ram, a protester from Bedfordshire, said that she refuses to take medications in general.

The protesters I interviewed were not particularly enthusiastic about the use of violence and intimidation in the animal rights movement, although one woman said that it has been “both effective and ineffective.” This puts many of the protesters at odds with the leaders of these organizations, who openly advocate intimidation tactics and who focused much of their speeches at the rally on intimidating and taunting the police.

Although I thought I might be able to find some common ground between protesters and researchers, I came away empty handed. By calling animal research “torture” and “vivisection” the protesters preclude themselves from participating in any rational discussion on ways to improve animal research to ensure even further that it is humane. Surprisingly, a common sentiment among the activists is that the researchers actually enjoy hurting animals.

“They go in there because that’s what they want to do: kill animals,” said Ram.

Although the protesters made many good points at the demonstration, this viewpoint regarding the motivation of scientists demonstrates a sharp disconnect with reality. I am not sure what would lead people to this point, believing that every scientist who does any research on animals does so because he or she wants to hurt and kill animals—not because he or she wants to cure diseases in humans and animals—but regardless of whether they are just extremely pessimistic or have just listened to too much propaganda, it will be extremely difficult or impossible to reach a compromise with people who hold such unyielding views.

By the time the protest march had made its way back to Broad Street, on its way to the town hall, I was tired. The three hours I had been at the demonstration had been exhilarating, but also exhausting. I don’t know what happened after I left, but the protest had been slowly dying down since leaving South Parks Road, so probably not too much.

I had learned a lot by this point, though, and much of it was unexpected. I was surprised that the motivations and goals of the protesters seemed to differ so much from those of the protest leaders. Despite the temptation, we should not globally label these activists as violent. In fact, the protesters were for the most part very peaceful, although the leaders succeeded in inciting some of them. Still, in the end it is up to these more peaceful people to wrestle control of their organizations away from the more violent leaders.

Based on the tactics they use and the message they send across, the leaders in particular do not appear interested in winning over new supporters, instead focusing on using the manpower they already have to intimidate. If this strategy continues, the animal rights movement will probably not grow but will instead decline.

Most importantly, I found that the protesters were firmly set in an extreme ideology. They were not there to protest what they thought were particularly inhumane types of animal research, and they were not even necessarily there to protest animal research in general. Instead, protested because they disagree with most uses or “exploitation” of animals, including eating them, regardless of how humane the methods are. Although I admire them for having such a consistent philosophy, this indicates that negotiations or compromise with these organizations will be virtually impossible. Although the science community should not ignore these protesters, scientists should not try to win the animal rights activists over and should instead focus on helping the general public understand their science and the motivations behind it.

In the past, animal rights activism has done great things for society, insuring that animal research is conducted to a reasonable ethical standard. The United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries have specific laws governing the conditions under which research on animals or humans can be undertaken. In addition, individual universities have their own ethical review boards for the same purpose. Although I believe the ethical bar could be set even higher, I don’t believe that calling for an end to all research on animals, and using intimidation or violence to achieve those means, will accomplish that. While activists have spurred important changes in the past, the current animal rights activists probably will not. In the meantime, the University of Oxford has presented the protesters with a better symbol to direct their energies against than they could have ever asked for.

Additional Information

This article from the Cherwell provides background on the current controversy.

Adventures in Ethics and Science has recently published several good discussions on animal research:
“Professional Duties, Personal Convictions”
“Just Because They’re Out to Get You Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Have a Point”
“Is All Animal Research Inhumane?”

Update 24 February 20:42 GMT: I have made one correction to this post, based on information I came across when I was adapting this post into an article for Oxford’s ISIS magazine. I had thought I heard speaker Matthew Simpson introduced as an Oxford professor, but I later learned after reading multiple accounts in The Oxford Student that he was in fact just a graduate of the university (although he claimed to speak for the entire university).

Jan 13, 2006

Amphibian Disease Heats Up

What do global warming and epidemic diseases have in common? Apparently they have a lot, at least when it comes to amphibians.

Microorganisms have a knack for showing up in unexpected places. In the 1980s, two scientists discovered a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori that causes over 80% of stomach ulcers, once thought to be primarily caused by stress. This turned medical dogma upside-down and earned them the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine . Even microorganisms aren’t safe from other microorganisms, with bacteria, for example under constant barrage from viruses called bacteriophages.

A group of scientists led by J. Alan Pounds reported yesterday in Nature that recent extinctions of tropical toad species in Central and South America are caused by a fungal infection and, more importantly, the increased outbreaks of the disease are caused by global warming. These findings emphasize an important consequence of climate change: widespread extinction of animal species.

On purely scientific grounds, the study is impressive. It starts with an important question, overcomes a seeming paradox, presents extensive statistically analyzed data, and presents a compelling and far-reaching conclusion. The study examines the recent extinctions of species of Atelopus, also know as the harlequin frogs (even though they apparently belong to the toad family), which live in the American tropics. Amphibians in general lend themselves to this type of study because they are becoming extinct so quickly that habit loss, another major cause of extinction, cannot alone explain the phenomenon.

The study estimates that 67% of these toads have become extinct, and notes that 80% of these extinctions have taken place after exceptionally warm years. Based on previously published reports, the authors began with the hypothesis that the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), which grows on amphibian skin in a condition called chytridiomycosis, is causing the extinctions. This presented the researchers with a paradox:
[Chytrid] is associated with host mortality in highlands or during winter, and, according to theory, becomes more pathogenic at lower temperatures. Hence, the idea that it causes declines in warm years is paradoxical. Moreover, the fungus is apparently more lethal under moist conditions, yet, at many affected sites, warm years are comparatively dry.

In the end, though, this turned out to be the key to solving the problem. The authors statistically linked the extinctions to both increased temperatures, but they also demonstrated that the greatest concentration of extinctions took place at intermediate to high altitudes, where the effects of global warming are slightly contradictory. Think of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow—where global warming causes the majority of the northern hemisphere to become frozen and inhabitable because of changes to the Gulf Stream—but without the Hollywood sensationalism.

As the temperature at sea level increases due to global warming, increased moisture is carried up to the highlands, meeting one of the conditions for chytrid growth there. This increased moisture leads to greater cloud cover, which has a moderating effect on the temperature, increasing the nighttime low but decreasing the daytime high—in effect homing in on the optimal temperature for chytrid fungus growth. Under these conditions, the toads are no match for their microbial invaders.

This study isn’t just about amphibians though. The authors conclude their study with a warning:
We establish that global climate change is already causing the extinction of species. Taking our results and recent findings that tie the same losses to disease, we conclude that climate-driven epidemics are an immediate threat to biodiversity. Our study sheds light on the amphibian-decline mystery by showing that large-scale warming is a key factor. It also points to a chain of events whereby this warming may accelerate disease development by translating into local or microscale temperature shifts—increases and decreases—favourable to Batrachochytrium. The case illustrates how greenhouse warming and the resultant intensification of the hydrological cycle, together with aerosol pollution, may affect life on Earth. Influencing patterns of cloud formation, these agents alter the thermal, light and moisture environments of many organisms, changing ecological interactions and threatening species survival.

The take-home lesson is that global warming is real, and it has real effects—tearing down ecosystems, brick by brick, that took millions of years to evolve. More than that, though, it is insidious and dangerously subtle. Global warming isn’t going to make us drown in rising waters, die of heat exhaustion, or freeze to death, at least not anytime soon. In the meantime, it slowly exerts its effects, often under the radar and often in unexpected ways, much like the microbial invaders riding in its coattails. Luckily for them, as human industry continues to produce greenhouse gases, global warming doesn't show any signs of stopping.

These effects are only just now coming to light, and by the time the damage has become so unavoidable to spur large scale action and change, we can only hope that it’s not too late.

Pharmaceutical Plants

Yesterday, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a paper describing the use of tobacco plants to produce a vaccine against one of humankind’s longtime scourges, the plague. In the study, scientists genetically modified tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) with genes from Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague. They then infected tobacco plants with the virus, making the plants effective producers of plague vaccine, pumping out the plague bacterial proteins necessary to stimulate the immune system to provide protection against the disease. After guinea pigs were exposed to Yersinia pestis, all untreated animals died, but 38 to 75% of vaccinated animals survived, depending on the specific vaccine used.

Although this is an interesting development, this study uses transgenic virus, not transgenic plants. As I stated in my previous post entitled “Biotechnology for the Masses”, pharmaceutical production by transgenic crops has not been fully realized, although it is promising, and examples of this promise do exist in the scientific literature.

A paper published in March 2005 in PNAS described a clinical trial in which participants ate potatoes that acted as a hepatitis B vaccine, having been genetically modified to produce proteins from the hepatitis B virus. Although the scientists could obviously not infect the participants with the hepatitis B virus to test the effectiveness of the vaccine, they did measure their immune response to the vaccine and found that 53 to 63% of participants responded to the vaccine, depending on how many potatoes they ate. The use of edible vaccines is especially suited for health campaigns in the developing world, so additional research along these lines could have great humanitarian implications.

Biotechnology for the Masses

Eradicating malnutrition and hunger, empowering farmers, and growing pharmaceuticals in everyday plants: these are some of the stated goals of plant biotechnology. Although the goals are noble and the basic science is sound, is there any science behind the high hopes?

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) recently released a report detailing the impressive rate of spread of transgenic crops worldwide:
2005 marks the tenth anniversary of the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops, now more often called biotech crops, as referred to consistently in this Executive Summary. In 2005, the billionth acre, equivalent to the 400 millionth hectare of a biotech crop, was planted by one of 8.5 million farmers, in one of 21 countries. This unprecedented high adoption rate reflects the trust and confidence of millions of farmers in crop biotechnology. Over the last decade, farmers have consistently increased their plantings of biotech crops by double-digit growth rates every single year since biotech crops were first commercialized in 1996, with the number of biotech countries increasing from 6 to 21 in the same period. Remarkably, the global biotech crop area increased more than fifty-fold in the first decade of commercialization.

Although some anti-transgenic crop organizations have tried to spin these results differently, the ISAAA has plenty of reason to be optimistic. Transgenic crop use is not only increasing in areas where these crops have traditionally been prevalent, most notably the United States, but they are persistently finding new venues, even in Europe, which has been notably strong in its resistance to transgenic crops. The report takes these results a step further, outlining potential benefits transgenic crops could offer society:
Bt rice, officially released in Iran in 2004, was grown on approximately four thousand hectares in 2005 by several hundred farmers who initiated commercialization of biotech rice in Iran and produced supplies of seed for full commercialization in 2006. Iran and China are the most advanced countries in the commercialization of biotech rice, which is the most important food crop in the world, grown by 250 million farmers, and the principal food of the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people, mostly subsistence farmers. Thus, the commercialization of biotech rice has enormous implications for the alleviation of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, not only for the rice growing and consuming countries in Asia, but for all biotech crops and their acceptance on a global basis. China has already field tested biotech rice in pre-production trials and is expected to approve biotech rice in the near-term.

Later, the report lays out a broad agenda for the future of transgenic crops:
There is cause for cautious optimism that the stellar growth in biotech crops, witnessed in the first decade of commercialization, 1996 to 2005, will continue and probably be surpassed in the second decade 2006-2015. The number of countries adopting the four current major biotech crops is expected to grow, and their global hectarage and number of farmers planting biotech crops are expected to increase as the first generation of biotech crops is more widely adopted and the second generation of new applications for both input and output traits becomes available. Beyond the traditional agricultural products of food, feed and fiber, entirely novel products to agriculture will emerge including the production of pharmaceutical products, oral vaccines, specialty and fine chemicals and the use of renewable crop resources to replace non-renewable, polluting, and increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

The Washington Post echoes many of these claims in its recent article on the subject. Justin Gills writes:
The report notes that the world's most important food crop, rice, could be on the verge of a transformation. Iran has already commercialized gene-altered rice and China appears nearly ready to do so, the report says. Widespread acceptance of such rice could put crop biotechnology into the hands of the tens of millions of small rice farmers who grow nearly half the calories eaten by the human race.

Putting something “into the hands of” small farmers is much different from giving them control over the technology. Laborers all over the world have access to the technology to produce clothing, cars, or most any other product, but that does not grant them any control over the technology or its profits. Implying that such advances would be empowering seems misleading, and I am waiting for a more detailed proposal of how such empowerment would play out.

As the ISAAA report states, virtually all transgenic crops in use are engineered for resistance to herbicides (71%), insects (18%), or both (11%). Although these alone are impressive developments that could have positive implications for society and the environment, the “second generation” crops with more interesting traits—such as producing fuels or medical products—are yet to make an impact. Still, the promise of such developments is very compelling.

Last spring, while writing a story on transgenic crops for Texas A&M University’s student newspaper The Battalion, I interviewed Dr. Keerti Rathore, associate professor of soil and crop sciences at A&M. He noted that within the next few decades the patents on the first round of transgenic crops will expire. When that happens, a major barrier to wider ownership and development of transgenic crops will be removed. This would allow university scientists who had developed their own crops to provide them directly to small farmers, without strings attached.

This answered the burning question on my mind: why should universities fund (using taxpayer dollars) scientists working in a field that at this point only benefits major agricultural corporations? Apparently it is a long-term strategy. Academics may also be more likely to develop more innovative, humanitarian, or medically or environmentally-driven strains of transgenic crops, since they are not as concerned with sticking to what is currently profitable.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the solution, it seems, is to invest even more funding in plant biotechnology research at universities, not less. Instead of assisting the large corporations, this could even undermine them in a sense, and in this case that is probably in the best interest of the general population. Universities, not so motivated by profits, are much more likely to put these crops “in the hands of” small farmers and give them a respectable degree of independence and control as well. Now that what I call biotechnology for the masses.

Cross-posted at Scientific Assessment

Jan 12, 2006

A Taste of Things to Come?

Despite ongoing issues with public perception of science, a bright spot is the overwhelming public support in the United States for federal funding of the medical sciences. Even on the extremely politicized issue of embryonic stem cell research, a majority of Americans support funding (up to 71% of them, depending on the poll). The people obviously have high hopes for biomedical research, including the 59% of California voters who last November voted to fund $3 billion of stem cell research. Is this all in vain?

The answer, of course, is no. Stem cell research is incredibly valuable to aiding our understanding of basic development and healing and promises to eventually lead to important therapies for a wide range of medical conditions. Everything should be okay then, right?

Not exactly. Instead, we should concern ourselves with what would happen if these high hopes backfired, and the fact that this scenario has already received some play in the mainstream press in regards to the California initiative is a not a great sign. Political cycles are short and voters are fickle. Since voters don’t spend hours a day in biological labs, they don’t have an accurate grasp of the normal timescale of scientific innovation. If the people were expecting results, they want them. Now.

None of this is breaking news, but a subtle aspect of the most important current event in science made me think about this. After his research group became the first to produce lines of stem cells from cloned human embryos, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk became a national hero in South Korea. His stem cell findings were published in two papers in Science in 2004 and 2005, and his report on the world’s first cloned dog was published in Nature in 2005. Almost overnight South Korea became the world’s leader in human cloning and embryonic stem cell research, and official priorities reflected this, as the South Korean government continued to pour money into Dr. Hwang’s research.

It seemed almost too good to be true, and in the end it was. After much speculation on the subject, a panel from Seoul National University reported earlier this week that the human cloning results had been faked (The cloned dog, Snuppy, was apparently real, though). Now Dr. Hwang and some of his associates may even face jail time. More than anything else, this is a lesson in scientific ethics and a reminder for scientific journals and review boards to remain vigilant in their search for science fraud. In addition, this is also a lesson in unbridled enthusiasm. A January 11 article in The New York Times came very close to connecting the dots between the high hopes in South Korea and those in the United States, but instead proceeded to thoroughly distance itself from any useful applications to the West.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in “Lesson in South Korea: Stem Cells Aren't Cars or Chips”:
After President Roh cut the tape for Dr. Hwang's World Stem Cell Hub in October, thousands of patients with spinal cord injuries, diabetes and other ailment applied for treatment.

"What he delivered certainly looked exciting for the political establishment in Korea," said Robert Triendl, a research coordinator at Riken Research Center for Allergy and Immunology in Japan. "So, step by step, they put him into an ever more powerful position, without really understanding what his work was about."

Professor Gottweis, of the University of Vienna, said that as late as November, when he interviewed Seoul officials for his survey of stem cell regulations, they would not discuss bioethics issues but "only wanted to talk about how to support Hwang."

What struck me was the statement about patients already looking for cures from a center that had not even began its basic research. I can imagine that these are people are not going to be very gung-ho about biomedical research in the future. Although this is an obvious parallel to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the center created by the November 2004 Initiative, The New York Times failed to make the connection. In fact, the article seemed to go out of its way to avoid any connections:
Through Dr. Hwang's fall, South Korea is belatedly learning that biotechnology is not the forum in which to play out its industrial policy ambitions. Unlike electronics or information technology, where the country excelled by building upon technology pioneered by others, biotechnology is a cutting-edge sector teeming with critics. And the field requires a highly sophisticated regulatory system.

Between this statement and the article’s incredibly unnecessary and pedantic title, the article is very clear that this is only a problem facing South Korea and possibly other developing countries. It seems to say, “Biotech is our territory. Stay away.” Despite this lack of treatment of the subject, there are lessons to be learned here, even for the United States. The main one is that high hopes can backfire very unexpectedly. If the expectations for clinical yields from basic biomedical research are not met in the United States, the high support could backfire, causing public support to dwindle, leading to a decrease in political support.

The solution is not to stop emphasizing science or its benefits, and it is definitely not to go ahead and decrease funding for scientific research now. To the contrary, we need to increase support: the United States has an incredibly poor record regarding stem cell funding in particular due to a Bush administration policy of not allowing federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines. Instead, we need begin place a greater emphasis on the merits of basic science in regards to the pursuit of knowledge. This is something that can start immediately, but mainly this needs to be a long term strategy, taking place most importantly in classrooms, where students should be taught the benefits of inquiry in science, not just the end results (medical treatments, in this case). We also need to be more realistic. Embryonic stem cells are not going to allow paraplegics to walk tomorrow, or even in the next few years. These things take time, and people need to understand that. They may even respect the scientific community more for being honest and upfront.

If we follow these suggestions, then if (or when) the high hopes are not met, the science won’t have to suffer because of it.

Jan 11, 2006

What is a Scientific Activist?

Introducing The Scientific Activist

Welcome to The Scientific Activist, a new source of news and commentary on science, politics, science policy, and everything in between. By providing information and insights on recent scientific developments, political issues in science, and the proper role of science in an everchanging world, this site hopes to make strides toward increasing public understanding of science, clearing up misconceptions, and opening up a dialogue on these important issues. This site also encourages the reader to become a scientific activist him or herself. I invite you to participate often and widely, and hopefully we will all learn something.

As science continues to play an increasingly prominent role in society and everyday life, the pace of public understanding of science has not kept up, leading to basic misunderstandings about science and a general lack of science literacy. Although usually manifested as a lack of support for certain types of scientific research or theories—particularly evolution, global warming, stem cell research, transgenic crops, and animal research—this dearth of understanding also causes people to place undue faith in miracle cures or to become unable to separate basic science from the ways some have applied scientific advances. Although some leaders can be blamed for intentionally misleading the public on scientific issues to achieve political goals, and the media can be blamed for often inadequate coverage of science, it is up to scientists in the end to become activists in their own right, and make educating the public a major priority. We cannot assume the science will speak for itself, and this was a major driving force behind the creation of The Scientific Activist.

Science is fundamentally a path of inquiry toward understanding nature. Although science is often equated with its applications—particularly in the pharmaceutical, biotechnological, and chemical industries—a major difference in philosophy and motivation exists here. Although basic science is purely about the search for knowledge and understanding, the applied sciences have a variety of different motivations, some admirable, others not. As many people become disillusioned with the industrial applications of science, scientists will have to step up and make this distinction to protect the credibility of their own field, advancing the cause of basic science, and supporting only proper applications of science.

Proper applications of science are those that improve people’s lives, empower the public, preserve the environment, and expand our knowledge of nature. For example, although past scientific advances have given some industrial plants the ability to produce polluting chemicals, science can also help us produce clean and renewable energy sources. Although the proper use of science generally falls into a progressive philosophy, scientific activism should not be beholden to a particular political ideology. In addition, scientists must also avoid falling into the trap of blindly supporting any scientific cause or application. For example, due primarily to the overwhelmingly inaccurate information coming from the opposition, life scientists in particular have felt the need to demonstrate firm and unwavering support for transgenic crops. Although the scientists have focused on describing the sound scientific basis of transgenic crops, this has often precluded them from discussing other implications, including the role transgenic crops could play in further consolidating agriculture worldwide. It is up to scientists to not only correct the scientific record but also to openly discuss the proper role of these scientific applications. In the case of transgenic crops, this includes the need to keep academic researchers heavily involved in their development of transgenic crops and to push for the development of the promised humanitarian benefits.

The life of a scientist is about understanding nature and communicating findings, which should naturally lend itself to engaging the public as well. There is an important role in society for those who search out information and broadcast it to the public, and only if people have access to the truth in all of its stunning complexity do they stand a chance of making the best decisions, for them and for society in general.

Introducing the Writer

I am currently a graduate student at Oxford University, working toward a doctorate in biochemistry. I graduated in May 2005 from Texas A&M University with an undergraduate degree in the same subject, and I headed to Oxford in October as a new Rhodes Scholar. Although I spend a great deal of my time in the research lab studying structural biology, my interests span a wide range, with the top three—science, politics, and the media—coalescing into the basis of The Scientific Activist.

Science is my first love, and I have long been interested in understanding the chemical basis of life. As a biochemistry major and Goldwater Scholar at Texas A&M University, I wrote my senior honors thesis on the movement of vascular cells in blood vessel development. I found blood vessel development fascinating because it is essential for normal growth, development, and healing, but also contributes to a variety of pathological conditions, including cancer. Through my current work, carried out under the guidance of Professor Iain Campbell, I seek to understand how individual cells in the body interact with their surroundings—basically how cells feel what’s going on around them and how they react accordingly. To study this, I look at the chemical details of the players involved, the proteins on either side of the cell membrane. Although this is an admittedly reductionist approach to understanding life, it can yield deep insights, especially when coupled with other approaches.

In addition to my scientific interests, my interest in politics blossomed when I was at Texas A&M, where I was president of the Texas Aggie Democrats, an active member of the Brazos Progressives, and a volunteer on multiple campaigns. I saw my political role at A&M as a disseminator of information, and I believe that my desire to discover and communicate knowledge and information is the common thread connecting my diverse interests. Along these same lines, I was science writer and opinion columnist for A&M’s student newspaper, The Battalion, during my final semester there. Although the media should be of interest to anyone in politics, I found the experience of actually practicing journalism fascinating, and my interest in the media hasn’t waned since. I’m currently a member of the Oxford Media Society, and I hope to continue to be involved in journalism indefinitely.

More recently I have become interested in science policy, public understanding of science, science activism, and the role of scientists in society. In short, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be a responsible scientist. I look forward to discussing these topics and science in general, and I hope to read about what you think as well.