The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Feb 28, 2006

Happy Birthday, Linus!

Today, 28 February, marks the birthday of a man whose life truly embodied the idea of scientific activism. In 1963, Linus Pauling (1901-1994) received the Nobel Peace Prize (officially the 1962 prize) for his tireless work on nuclear disarmament. Well before then, though, he had already established himself as one of the world’s foremost chemists by contributing to our understanding of chemical bonding and formulating valence bond theory. As a Renaissance man, of sorts, he had even gone on to apply his chemical knowledge to biology, elucidating fundamental structural aspects of proteins and discovering the molecular basis of sickle cell anemia, with all of these efforts contributing to his 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Pauling, the only person ever awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes, was the recipient of the second of nine Nobel Prizes awarded to date at least partially for work against nuclear weapons. Only three of these nine were awarded to scientists. The 1985 Nobel Peace Prize went to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and Joseph Rotblat (1908-2005) and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. The awarding of the 1962 prize to Pauling was a controversial move because Pauling had been particularly critical of Western nuclear proliferation. He received the prize a year late in 1963, and he only received it after a personal campaign launched by Gunnar Jahn (1883-1971), the chair of the committee.

Linus Pauling was born in Portland, Oregon, where he lived for most of his youth. After leaving high school in 1917 without a diploma, he entered Oregon Agricultural College as a chemical engineering major. He left college for a few months to work, but returned after being offered a job as a quantitative analysis instructor. He graduated in 1922 and entered graduate school at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Although Caltech was relatively new and unestablished at this point, it would be one of the most prominent scientific institutions in the world by the time Pauling left 40 years later. In graduate school, Pauling studied x-ray crystallography under Roscoe Dickinson, and in 1925 he received a Ph.D. in chemistry, with minors in physics and mathematics. After spending some time in Munich at the Institute of Theoretical Physics, Pauling returned to Caltech in 1927 as an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1929 and full professor in 1931. From 1931 to 1933, he published a series of seminal papers in which he described the details of chemical bonding from the valence bond theory point of view.

Valence bond theory is a quantum mechanical description of chemical bonding, describing chemical bonds within a molecule individually, as an electron pair coming from the combination of two atomic orbitals. In this way it is intuitive—chemists tend to think of molecules as collections of smaller units, especially since that is how molecules are synthesized in the laboratory. Valence bond theory was initially published in 1927 by Walter Heitler (1904-1981) and Fritz London (1900-1954) with a paper on the H2 molecule, but after Pauling published his first series of papers on the subject in the early 1930s, he became its chief advocate. Valence bond theory allowed chemists to use quantum mechanics without having to learn the detailed math behind it, and Pauling made valence bond theory attractive by introducing many shortcuts. Also, by applying the concept of resonance, he was able to account for the delocalization of electrons in some molecules, although this involved drawing multiple structures for a given molecule, something that was impractical for large molecules. Valence bond theory was successful primarily because it was simple, but this oversimplification eventually led to its downfall in favor of the more rigorous approach to chemical bonding found in molecular orbital theory. In 1939, Pauling published the Nature of the Chemical Bond, one of the most influential chemical textbooks ever written, having been cited over 16,000 times to date. By the time the third edition was published in 1960, though, Pauling had become largely irrelevant as a theoretical chemist, due to his willful ignorance of molecular orbital theory.

Since 1939, Pauling had gone on to solve biological problems, including the secondary structures of proteins and the molecular basis of sickle cell anemia. In a moment of pure scientific inspiration, Pauling inductively determined the three-dimensional geometry of the alpha-helix—one of the fundamental units of protein structure—while lying in bed sick in Oxford. He reported this finding, along with the structure of the beta-sheet—the other basic structure found in proteins—in 1951. Before publishing these results, though, he had already reported an idea that would revolutionize the fields of medicine and biology: the concept of the molecular disease. In 1949 Pauling and his co-authors described the molecular basis of sickle cell anemia, for the first time connecting the symptoms of a human medical condition to basic chemical principles. The idea of molecular medicine is only today finally coming into its own, even though it was first introduced by Pauling’s work over half a century ago.

After having solved so many fundamental chemical and biological problems, Pauling believed that these same techniques could be applied to social problems, especially war. Although he was not originally interested in such issues, his wife Ava Helen Miller introduced him to politics, which dominated much of his later life. Pauling began crusading against nuclear weapons in 1946 when he and seven other scientists formed the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, chaired by Albert Einstein. Pauling approached political and social problems as a scientist, making it his goal to understand the effects of nuclear testing and to relay those findings to the public. His early efforts were to prevent the creation of the hydrogen bomb, but after its creation he focused on nuclear disarmament. In particular, he scientifically determined how fallout from nuclear testing would influence the rates of congenital deformities. In 1958 he presented a petition, signed by 9,235 scientists wishing to end nuclear testing, to the United Nations, and during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pauling and his wife gave up to 100 lectures a year on the subject. Linus Pauling was awarded his Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, coinciding with the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which had at that point been signed by all relevant countries except China and France. The purpose of this treaty was to end above ground testing of nuclear weapons, and none of the participating countries have since tested a nuclear weapon above ground. Even France tested its last in 1974 and China in 1980.

Throughout history we have seen many phenomenal chemists, molecular biologists, medical scientists, and political activists. Rarely, though, has someone excelled in all of these areas, and probably none have to the extent that Linus Pauling did. Although his legacy was not always positive, including the mixed results of his advocacy of vitamin C, he made a lasting impact in all the areas he worked in, from founding the field of molecular medicine to helping curb Cold War nuclear weapon proliferation. His activism in particular was notable because not only did it involve scientific subjects, but he approached it in a scientific manner. Today, then, I wish to remember Linus Pauling as the premier scientific activist of the Twentieth Century. Let us hope that the memory of his legacy can spur socially conscious scientists into action throughout the next millennium.

Note: Much of the material in this post is derived from two essays I wrote for Dr. Anthony Stranges’ History of Science course at Texas A&M University during fall 2004: “Linus Pauling Versus Robert Mulliken” and “A Love/Hate Relationship: Scientific Activists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons”.

Feb 27, 2006

We Didn’t Start the Fire (We Just Made Some Money Off It)

Today’s Washington Post reports on a story that I commented on earlier this month (as others did as well). In short, Oregon State University scientists reported in Science magazine that some logging practices may contribute to forest fires, rather than curbing them as conventional wisdom leads us to believe. The report ran contrary to current federal policy under the Bush administration, and the funding for the research group was suspended.
Logging after the Biscuit fire, the study found, has harmed forest recovery and increased fire risk. What the short study did not say -- but what many critics of the Bush administration are reading into it -- is that the White House has ignored science to please the timber industry. The study is consistent with research findings from around the world that have documented how salvage logging can strip burned forests of the biological diversity that fire and natural recovery help protect.

The study also questions the scientific rationale behind a bill pending in Congress that would ease procedures for post-fire logging in federal forests. This, in turn, has annoyed the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who has received far more campaign money from the forest products industry than from any other source, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Logging after fires is becoming more and more important to the bottom line of timber companies. It generates about 40 percent of timber volume on the nation's public lands, according to Forest Service data compiled by the World Wildlife Fund, and accounts for nearly half the logging on public land in Oregon.

Fortunately, the federal agency involved restored funding rapidly after an outcry by some members of Congress. Still, a hearing was held on the issue last Friday, where the main topic seemed to be how to best discredit the study’s primary author:
The hearing's star witness -- and principal punching bag -- was Daniel Donato, lead author of the Science article and a graduate student at Oregon State's forestry school. By at least a decade, he was the youngest participant in the hearing. Rail thin and wearing neatly pressed khakis, he looked even younger.

Walden accused Donato, 29, of having failed to tell his federal research supervisor about the findings of his study, as is required by the terms of his research contract with the federal government. Donato conceded that he had not known about the requirement for consultation and that he knows more about it now.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), another member of the subcommittee and a co-sponsor of the forest recovery bill, was even more disgruntled. He charged Donato with a long list of professional failings and character flaws, including "deliberate bias," lack of humility and ignorance of statistical theory.

Donato smiled nervously through these attacks and politely -- but firmly -- told the hearing that his article was solid on its facts and fair in its conclusions. He also said the forest study should not be viewed as, nor was it intended to be, the final word on post-fire logging.

Overall, the Washington Post article is surprisingly poignant, with its compelling David versus Goliath tale. Although it does not discuss the scientific controversy around the Science report, it does make a point out one of the subtleties that is often glossed over in these types of policy discussions: a discussion of how “effective” a given policy is depends entirely on an agreement of the desired goals of the policy:

After Donato was excused, one of the nation's best-known forest ecologists attempted to summarize the world's collective scientific knowledge on logging after fires. Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources, warned the hearing that Congress should be careful not to prescribe salvage logging as a cure-all for every forest fire.

Salvage logging and replanting can often succeed, Franklin said, if the intent is to turn a scorched landscape into a stand of trees for commercial harvest.

If, however, Congress wants to promote the ecologically sound recovery of burned federal forests, Franklin said, the overwhelming weight of scientific research suggests that "salvage logging is not going to be appropriate."

Feb 26, 2006

Oxford Scientists Bite Back at Animal Rights Activists

How can scientists get more people excited about their work? Based on what happened yesterday in Oxford, holding a major demonstration—complete with speeches, signs, catchy slogans, and a march through the center of town—might be a good start, at least if the work has become a major hot-button issue. Although I probably wouldn’t attract many people to a rally on my work in protein structure determination, the same cannot be said for animal research, as the student organization Pro-Test mobilized hundreds of people on Saturday, 25 February, and took their pro-science message to the streets of Oxford.

Since the University of Oxford began building a new biomedical research center featuring improved animal research facilities in 2004, animal rights activists have enjoyed a pervasive visibility, holding small weekly protests and occasional larger national protests. Despite the vast majority of Oxford students supporting the completion of the new research center, the animal rights protesters have monopolized the spotlight, largely because few scientists have publicly spoken out in favor of the research. With the constant threat of violence from fringe groups, it is not surprising that many of the affected have not spoken up.

If people have interpreted this silence as a lack of support for animal research at Oxford, though, such notions can be put to rest once and for all after the showing at the Pro-Test rally Saturday, where hundreds of people—scientists and non-scientists, members of the university and others from the community—joined together to send a strong message to anyone harboring these doubts. Although the BBC reported a turnout of “nearly 500 people,” other estimates put the crowd at closer to 800 participants (including the Guardian), with it possibly topping 1,000 at its height. Despite the large numbers, the crowd was well-controlled and remained on-message. It was clear that the people there felt strongly that animal research is integral in achieving the promise of modern biomedical research and that they would not let a small number of extremists deter medical progress.

As I approached Broad Street, the starting point of the demonstration, at about 11:15, I could already tell that the mood in the air was much different from the last time I ran into a major protest in Oxford, the 14 January animal rights protest sponsored by SPEAK. Most people seemed to be going about their daily business as usual, with even the gaudy red double-decker tourist buses running on schedule. Down at the far end of the street, though, a crowd was amassing, carrying signs with slogans such as “Build the lab,” “Animal Testing Saves Lives,” and “Stand up for science.” There was a large security presence, marked by fluorescent yellow police jackets, but it was not as excessive as with the prior animal rights protests.

By 11:30 a crowd of a few hundred demonstrators had descended on the site, and the chants began. Sometimes it was “Stand Up for Science! Stand Up for Research!” Other times it was “Pro-science! Progress! Protest!” (this one works especially well in a British accent) or one of the others that were repeated with vigor throughout the event. At 11:45 Tom Holder, an undergraduate student in politics who would be the emcee for the day, kicked off the first round of speeches. He set the tone for the event, keeping things positive and displaying a good sense of humor.

The first speaker was Laurie Pycroft, the 16-year-old founder of Pro-Test, who has subsequently become a major target of animal rights extremists. “This is a very good day for scientific progress,” said Pycroft during his short opening speech. “This is the first time to march for the Oxford lab.” The importance of this day would be a common theme throughout the event.

Pycroft was followed by John Stein, professor of physiology at Oxford, who also called Saturday a “historic day” as he set out to give listeners a “true picture of animal research and why it’s important.” He gave several examples of where animal research had benefited patients, including such diverse conditions as meningitis and dyslexia. To address the common theme in animal rights circles that scientists are needlessly cruel to animals, he proclaimed that “animal welfare is paramount in our minds” and is “closely regulated by the Home Office.” Stein received enthusiastic cheers when he wrapped up his speech with an appeal to the popular support for animal research, which would be another common theme throughout the rally. “This is not just an argument about animal rights, but also one about democracy.”

MP Evan Harris addresses the crowd.

The final speaker on Broad Street was Even Harris, a local member of parliament from the Liberal Democrats, who greeted the crowd by saying “I’m pleased to see this rabble rousing of the best kind.” He also addressed the wide support for animal research in the United Kingdom. “There may be a few hundred here, and there may be a few thousand, but we speak for millions in this country.”

By the time the demonstrators began marching, the energy level was high, and they joined in on the chants enthusiastically. The crowd was young and energetic, with an average age of less than thirty and consisting mostly of university students. Still, participants ranged from young children to the elderly. The march went very smoothly, without any major incidents, although at one point the protest was subject to some shouting from a single observer from the animal rights camp, succeeding in distracting a large amount of attention (especially from the media) away from the march. However, the march continued on unabated.

I had come to the rally with the explicit goal of reporting on the events of the day, and nothing else. Although I fully supported animal research and the goals of Pro-Test, I had previously expressed some doubts as to how effective this demonstration would be. By the time the march had reached Holywell Street, on its way to the construction sight of the biomedical research center, I was truly caught up in the moment, and I transitioned from a casual observer to a full-fledged demonstrator. It was impossible to resist: the positive message, the driving energy, the clever chants—it was all just too much, and I found myself as close to the front as possible, yelling as enthusiastically as anyone else.

“No more threats, no more fear! Animal research wanted here!”

“What do we want?” “The Oxford lab!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

As the chants resounded and echoed between rows of centuries-old buildings, it was clear that this was a message that truly resonated with the people of Oxford. It was a message of hope and a message of promise, of determination and courage. This wasn’t about torture or hate, violence or intimidation, profit or financial gain. This was about people tired of letting a fringe element push its beliefs on them, while threatening to stall the medical progress that they want and have come to expect—not so much for themselves, but more so for those they know affected by serious medical conditions.

After turning onto Mansfield Road, the march reached the construction site around 12:30, and more speakers began, kicked off by Tipu Aziz, a neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary. His speech was lofty, describing the day as a “return to reason” and the “return of democracy to the UK.” He crossed the line into fantasy, though, when he proclaimed Saturday to be the “end of animal rights terrorism in the UK.” Although public support for animal rights organizations might be beginning to wane, as people are turned off by the extreme tactics the movement has resorted to, the activities of the most radical groups—including widespread destruction of property—show no signs of ending anytime soon.

Aziz was followed by Kristina Cook, a chemistry graduate student at Oxford and a Pro-Test organizer. Cook’s speech focused on the success and promise of animal research in finding treatments and cures for today’s diseases. She noted several examples where animal research had led to widely used treatments and noted that many of these were developed at Oxford, most notably penicillin. “We cannot let the advance of knowledge be stopped like it was in Cambridge,” said Cook, referring to the ill-fated animal research center there that was eventually terminated due in part to animal rights activism. “Let’s stand up for reason. Let’s stand up for our right to determine that the animal lab is constructed without interference.”

Pro-Test member Kristina Cook explains her support for animal research.

After two additional speakers, the march reversed course and headed back toward the town center for more speeches at Radcliffe Square. Suddenly, I found myself at the back of the protest, and without the sustaining crowd energy in the front rows I suddenly snapped back into reporter mode. I remembered why I was there in the first place, and I wanted to find answers to the same questions I had asked at the January SPEAK protest: who are these people, and why are they here?

There is something romantic (to me, at least) about the idea of scientists organizing masses of other scientists to rally in favor of a scientific cause. You can call me a skeptic, though, because however compelling this idea was, I was not expecting to find anything approaching this. After all, scientists aren’t really known for direct political action. I was pleasantly surprised, though, as I found that the Pro-Test event came much closer to approximating this ideal than I had espected.

I found a healthy mix of people at the rally, covering a spectrum of disciplines and backgrounds, but the majority of people I talked to were in a scientific or medical field and most were Oxford students. Interestingly, a particularly large number were current medical students. One said “I’m seeing a lot of people I know,” although her friend, who studies history at Oxford noted “it’s not just the sciences here.” Another medical student said “I’ve seen a lot of my professors,” but he also noted that he saw a lot of non-scientists there as well. These students explained that they received a few emails about the protest, but many students did not attend because they “didn’t want any trouble” and many feared violent retaliation.

The others I met and conversed with included students in other scientific subjects, students in English, politics, and other non-science subjects, a science publisher, and others who did not specify their connections to the university. These enlightening conversations with other demonstrators were soon cut short. When the march reached Radcliffe Square and speeches resumed, a participant who was particularly interested in the speakers told me very directly to be quiet so she could hear what they were saying.

A few speeches here ended the day, including one by Simon Festing, executive director of the Research Defence Society. “Of course they have the right to protest, but that doesn’t make them right,” he said in one of his more quotable statements. He later rose to full form again when he said that his response to the question “How do you sleep at night?” is “Healthy and well, thanks to medical advances.” After a few more words from emcee Tom Holder, the protest ended and the crowd dispersed, but not before the participants had been given quite a bit to chew on.

Despite some occasional soundbite moments, the speeches were packed with substance and carried an important message. Although complaints about the animal rights protesters were a common topic, it was not the focus of the protest. Instead, the message was in general very positive, more about education than advocacy. The people were there because they wanted to see the full promise of medical science fulfilled, and animal research would be the only way to do that.

On my way home after the protest, I happened to walk by the SPEAK protest occurring on the other side of the research center construction site. As I walked the length of South Parks Road, all I heard was “Stop the Oxford animal lab!” repeated over and over again from a crowd numbering somewhere between 50-100 people. Taking in this loud noise but lack of substance, I began to reflect on how my experience at the Pro-Test rally compared to my previous experience at a SPEAK rally.

Those who have read my account of the SPEAK rally on 14 January may have noted some pretty obvious similarities between the two experiences. At both, I approached the rally on Broad Street, noting an initial lack of energy and people. As energy began to build through a few speeches, the protesters marched toward the construction site, and I was swept along. I ended up on the front lines of the demonstration, in the middle of the action, when it reached the construction site. When the rally heads back toward the center of town, though, energy begins to wane, and I interview the participants before finally heading home.

Despite these superficial similarities, the deeper differences are glaring. The SPEAK protest focused primarily on inciting the crowd and making verbal attacks, mostly directed against animal researchers but also aimed at the security forces present and anyone else associated with the project, including the construction workers. None of this happened at the Pro-Test demonstration. Although speakers at the Pro-Test event often mentioned the animal rights protesters, it was not done in such an aggressive way, and that was not the main focus of the event. Also, while the Pro-Test speakers were able to give specific examples of how animal research has benefited society and why it is important that such research continues, the SPEAK speakers were not able to provide much substantial information at their protest.

Another more tangible difference was the larger turnout at the Pro-Test event, demonstrating just how strongly people in Oxford support animal research and the great degree that they had been silenced in the debate up to this point. Significantly, a large portion and possibly most of the participants were in the medical or scientific fields. Scientists, so intent on protecting their objectivity, in general are difficult to propel into action on political issues, even when science could be impacted in significant ways. The fact that this cause propelled so many young scientists into action Saturday could mean that some of the rhetoric about this being a historic day or a new beginning may be true. This could be one sign of a new generation of more socially responsible scientists.

Despite all of this, animal research is an area where we as a society need to maintain an active and open dialogue. Although animal research is already extensively regulated and the conditions in animal labs are better than ever, we should never be completely satisfied with the status quo, and we need to be ready to address any questions about ethics in research practices that may come up. One of my most severe criticisms of the animal rights movement in Oxford has been that through its tactics and unyielding stance, it has preempted this dialogue from occurring, which seems counterproductive. Although animal research ethics was not the primary topic of the Pro-Test demonstration, it was addressed multiple times, and the goals of Pro-Test appear fully compatible with continuing this dialogue.

Pro-Test’s leadership committee, which consists of about ten individuals, planned the event. Although only two of them are scientists—one a graduate student in chemistry student and the other an undergraduate in biochemistry—they played an integral role in evaluating scientific information and doing research on the topics that were presented at the demonstration. Without them, the protest would have lacked substance. On the other hand, many of the other committee members were able to draw on valuable experience in organizing, demonstrating, and working with the media, and they were essential for the extensive publicity and attendance enjoyed by the event.

Yesterday’s demonstration was a model example of scientific activism, mobilizing hundreds of scientists around a scientific issue, but it also involving members of the general public as well. Its message was positive and geared toward specific goals that should be achievable. The speakers stayed on topic and participants were likely to have learned something. Because of its success, the Pro-Test demonstration could prove to be a turning point in the clash between scientists and animal rights extremists. An event of this nature can only help the cause of science, and it has already succeeded in building a great deal of momentum behind the pro-research cause in Oxford. Now that Pro-Test has already shown itself capable of such powerful scientific activism, if it can live up to the bar that it has already set so high then the future of the new biomedical research center—and Oxford science in general—looks very promising.

Feb 25, 2006

SPUSA Conference: 31 March – 1 April

Are you a student interested in science and its impact on society? If so, you might also be interested in the upcoming Student Pugwash USA (SPUSA) conference, which will be hosted by Purdue University for two days beginning on 31 March 2006. Readers of The Scientific Activist might find many of the issues that SPUSA explores famliar:
Student Pugwash USA (SPUSA) is an educational, nonprofit organization that strives to add a dimension to scientific study that goes beyond formulas and figures. Activities force young people to probe the reasons for scientific advancement and the implications of technology on citizens' everyday lives.

While examining all sides of an issue, SPUSA increases students' ability to think independently about the issues that affect society -- issues that range from international conflict to environmental protection, from genetics research to civil rights. SPUSA focuses on the interplay that lies at the juncture of science, technology, and public policy.

More information on the background of the organization can be found on its website. The Purdue conference is the first of a series of regional conferences this year sponsored by SPUSA. According to Sharlissa Moore, Program Coordinator, “It’s open to science students of all disciplines—including science and philosophy and policy students. The conference will feature Dr. Arden Bement, Director of the National Science Foundation and focus on the topic of scientific integrity in science and engineering.” Other topics include the intersection of science and politics and the roles of integrity and social responsibility in science.

It sounds pretty interesting to me!

The complete agenda can be found online, and if you are interested in registering or have any questions, please email Sharlissa Moore at

Feb 24, 2006

Pro-Test Demonstration This Saturday

I talked to one of the organizers of the pro-research group Pro-Test yesterday, and the rally these students have planned in Oxford this Saturday promises to be informative and exciting. For reasons demonstrating why this event is important, see the article in today's Guardian and my last post on the issue. If you're in the Oxford area, I hope to see you there:
Build the Oxford Animal Lab

March: 11.30am, Saturday 25 February (6th Week)
Rally in Broad Street, to march via South Parks Road to Radcliffe Square

Support science. Support progress. March in favour of the Oxford Biomedical Research Laboratory and medical advancement through animal experimentation. Demonstrate on Saturday to ensure scientific and medical research continues (and improves) in Oxford University!

Speakers include (from 11.30am):
  • Professor Tipu Aziz, Neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary
  • Professor John Stein, Professor of Physiology at Oxford University
  • Dr Simon Festing, the Executive Director of the Research Defence Society
  • Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
  • Pro-Test representatives
Join the email list by emailing:

Update 24 February 13:12 GMT: I should also point readers to an article by Pro-Tester Kristina Cook on Spiked Online that explains what Pro-Test is all about.

Feb 23, 2006

Strategies for Scientific Activists

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) wrapped up on Monday, 20 February, but not before it generated quite a bit of news and commentary on scientific activism. One example was this article from The New York Times, detailing an event where scientists spoke out about the practices of the current administration. In addition, some particularly insightful commentary can be found at the following blogs:
  • In a post on the Bad Astronomy Blog Phil Plait discusses the talk he gave—on current attacks against science—at the AAAS meeting. His blog also sports several additional posts about other aspects of the meeting.
  • Matthew Nisbet of Framing Science, also gave a talk at the meeting on scientists using the media to engage the public on scientific topics. He outlines the take-home message of his talk in this post.
  • At The Intersection, Chris Mooney gives a condensed version of Nisbet’s post, and he points readers to a recent article he wrote for Seed about how scientists can join the political dialogue.
  • Finally, Dietram Scheufele of Nanopublic also gave a talk on the need for scientists to engage the public on controversial scientific topics and how scientists can go about doing so by framing the debate.

Feb 22, 2006

Oh My Google!

If Google is taking a lot of flak right now for embracing internet censorship in China, it’s hard to say that it’s not the company’s own fault for letting its motto of “Don’t be evil” fall by the wayside. Although this is first and foremost a human rights issue, the fallout from Google’s decision has already branched into new and unexpected areas, inviting a whole host of new legal problems for the internet giant.

The human rights implications of Google’s being a party to Chinese censorship were explored thoroughly in a congressional hearing last week, on 15 February. At the hearing, executives from Google and its peer companies Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems faced tough questions spanning a wide spectrum, from how they actually go about censoring content to how they sleep at night. The company representatives were as usual unapologetic, although at one point Elliot Schrage, Google vice president for corporate communications, tried to play the sympathy card. “I hope it was clear from my written testimony that I submitted, and from my oral testimony that I gave, that this was not something we did enthusiastically, or not something that we're proud of at all.”

I don’t think many will feel too sorry for Google, though, since the company stands to gain enormously by having this new market at its fingertips. In the meantime, political dissidents in China will continue be silenced as Google joins the government in preventing its citizens from accessing accurate and comprehensive information (or any information at all) on a variety of sensitive topics.

You can’t please everyone all of the time, and for Google it looks like it can’t please anyone right now, as the Chinese media—possibly speaking for the government there—charges that Google has not done enough to censor its search results. The Washington Post reports:
A state-run newspaper reported Tuesday that Google Inc. is under investigation for operating without a proper license in China and quoted an unnamed government official as saying the Internet giant needs to cooperate further with the authorities in blocking "harmful information" from its search results.

The report, in the Beijing News, was published the same day that another state newspaper ran a harshly worded editorial about Google. The paper accused the firm of sneaking into China like an "uninvited guest" and then making a fuss about being required to follow Chinese law and cooperate in censoring search results such as pornography….

…Google has defended its decision to launch the censored site, arguing that people in China can continue to use the Chinese version of its regular search engine, It has also pointed out that the new search engine is the first in China to inform users when results have been removed because of the government's "laws, regulations and policies."

But it appears Chinese authorities are now pressuring Google to cut off access in China to its regular search engine, and to stop telling users of the new site every time a search is censored.

"Is it necessary for an enterprise that is operating within the borders of China to constantly tell your customers you are following domestic law?" said the editorial published Tuesday in the China Business Times, a financial daily.

Google faces a serious dilemma here. If it refuses to go along with the new orders, it risks losing access to the customers it has already lost so much face over. On the other hand, if Google steps up its censorship efforts to comply with the new standards, it will have more trouble playing the role of the hesitant profiteer, and its credibility in the area of free speech will be reduced to virtually nil.

Google may also face new legal challenges back home in the U.S., as the Bureau of Industry and Security (part of the Department of Commerce) may be preparing to challenge Google on its use of certain encryption technologies in its censorship activities. The Bureau of Industry and Security regulates “dual-use” products or technologies, meaning those items that are intended for commercial use but could have military or security implications as well. Encryption software falls under this definition, and Google’s exportation of these technologies to China, especially for use in censorship, has apparently raised some eyebrows at the bureau. The details of these regulations operate far, far away in the legal realm where The Scientific Activist fears to tread (feel free to take on the legalese yourself, if you dare), but this could develop into a pretty significant story.

If there has been a lesson to all of this it might be “Don’t be evil… unless you’re ready to pay for it.” How much this debacle will cost Google remains to be seen, and although the company will still gain financially, only it can decide whether the cost in lost credibility was really worth it.

Feb 20, 2006

Animal Wrongs

Although they have become the bane of many Oxford scientists’ existences lately, I've found the presence of the animal rights protesters in Oxford somewhat charming—anything to spice things up a bit in a place that can seem quite dull at times. I can count on seeing them at least once a week, congregating across the street from the construction site of the new biomedical research building, yelling “Stop the Oxford animal lab!” with a surprising amount of conviction for such a repetitive chant. I know many others don’t have the luxury of finding them charming, though, especially my peers in the Plant Sciences building, for example, located next to the weekly protest site, or the construction workers who are forced to wear masks to protect their identities.

This isn’t charming either. Today’s Guardian reports:
Militant animal rights activists are threatening violent attacks on scores of companies which fund Oxford University unless they announce today they are to end their financial support.

The Animal Liberation Front, through its mouthpiece Bite Back magazine, based in West Palm Beach, Florida, gave 100 firms, ranging from large companies such as IBM to charitable trusts such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and small groups such as the British Deer Society, a week to pull their funding as part of the campaign to stop the building of a medical research laboratory at the university.

Although the ALF has not named the firms it is understood they have taken the names from the website run by Speak, the British based campaign to stop the building of the laboratory. Speak denies connections with the ALF and members say they do not use violence. Their website, however, lists 100 companies known to fund the university, and includes addresses and telephone numbers. It calls on sympathisers to contact the companies, and in some cases named staff.

The ALF is clearly an organization on the fringe of the animal rights movement, and I can sympathize with the predominately peaceful protesters who are tainted by this violent trace element. When I covered an animal rights protest in January 2006, I talked to several protesters about why they were there and how they felt about the movement and its tactics. None of the protesters I spoke to advocated for the destructive tactics of the ALF, and most even disagreed with the intimidation tactics used by the more lawful organization SPEAK, which had organized the demonstration.

SPEAK has enjoyed the best of both worlds, consistently denying any connections to the ALF but refusing to denounce its actions as well. As the Guardian points out, SPEAK could be construed as indirectly supporting the ALF’s activities by providing a list of companies for the organization to target with its renewed promises of violence. These actions by the ALF, though, and the ambivalent response from SPEAK are nothing new, as I reported in describing the police presence at the protest:
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.

Later, when I was preparing an article for Oxford’s ISIS magazine on this topic, I spoke to SPEAK spokesperson Mel Broughton about the ALF. Although he heavily stressed that SPEAK only engages in legal activities, he still gave a cryptic answer. “Whether the actions of those organizations help us or hurt us, I don’t know. Being involved in a legal process is becoming increasingly difficult. Normal activities are being illegalized.”

This lack of a firm stance on the issue calls SPEAK’s credibility into question, and will probably hurt its mission, as people become increasingly disenchanted with the tactics of animal rights extremists.

In the meantime, what is an Oxford scientist to do about all of this?

Apparently, some are turning to the new pro-research organization Pro-Test (if nothing else, they get points in my book for a damn clever name), which is holding a counter protest this coming Saturday:
Build the Oxford Animal Lab

March: 11.30am, Saturday 25 February (6th Week)
Rally in Broad Street, to march via South Parks Road to Radcliffe Square

Support science. Support progress. March in favour of the Oxford Biomedical Research Laboratory and medical advancement through animal experimentation. Demonstrate on Saturday to ensure scientific and medical research continues (and improves) in Oxford University!

Speakers include (from 11.30am):
  • Professor Tipu Aziz, Neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary
  • Professor John Stein, Professor of Physiology at Oxford University
  • Dr Simon Festing, the Executive Director of the Research Defence Society
  • Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
  • Pro-Test representatives
Join the email list by emailing:

I don’t know how effective these efforts will be, and I’m not a fan of people on either extreme hijacking the debate and preempting the dialogue on animal experimentation that we probably should be having. With that said, SPEAK has been able to put out too much misinformation for too long, and it’s about time that someone stole its spotlight.

In fact, I think I’m going to play one of SPEAK’s favorite cards here: I am in no way affiliated with Pro-Test, but I hope the rally is successful, and I’d encourage anyone in the Oxford area this weekend to check it out.

Besides, isn’t it about time we saw some more scientific activism anyway?

Note: Thanks go to Jen Dulin for pointing me toward the Guardian article.

Feb 17, 2006

Double Drug Jeopardy

I’ll be honest with you: I really don’t know what to think about drug companies. I’ll give them some credit, since unlike many of their peers they produce a product that is useful to society and has important humanitarian implications. I want to like them—I really do—but when I read about things like this, it becomes pretty difficult.

On 15 February, The New York Times published a detailed account in its business section on the exorbitant prices some pharmaceutical companies are willing to charge for their therapies. The report focused on Avastin, a drug produced by Genentech for treatment of colon cancer. The drug is now being prescribed for breast and lung cancer, but a year of Avastin treatment for these conditions can cost $100,000. Ouch.

Surely this steep price tag must mean that Avastin is just a really expensive drug to produce, or maybe Genentech just wants to recoup the money it spent to develop it. Right?

Until now, drug makers have typically defended high prices by noting the cost of developing new medicines. But executives at Genentech and its majority owner, Roche, are now using a separate argument — citing the inherent value of life-sustaining therapies.

If society wants the benefits, they say, it must be ready to spend more for treatments like Avastin and another of the company's cancer drugs, Herceptin, which sells for $40,000 a year.

"As we look at Avastin and Herceptin pricing, right now the health economics hold up, and therefore I don't see any reason to be touching them," said William M. Burns, the chief executive of Roche's pharmaceutical division and a member of Genentech's board. "The pressure on society to use strong and good products is there."

In other words, “If you don’t want to die, you’d better pay up… bitch.”

The New York Times elaborates extensively on Genentech’s “aggressive” pricing schemes. At one point, the article mentions the specific example of a patient named Ellis Minrath, who has decided not to take Genentech’s drug Tarceva for his pancreatic cancer because it would cost him $1,000 a month (even after Medicare has paid the rest of the bill). In its bid for my Most Absurd Quote of the Week Award, the drugmaker responds:
But Dr. Desmond-Hellmann, the Genentech product development chief, said she would recommend that Mr. Minrath be treated with Tarceva. "I don't think any patient should go without a Genentech drug for an inability to pay," she said. "If this is about money, that would disturb me."

Yes, and it should also disturb anyone else reading this, but we’re not the ones charging the exorbitant fees!

Adding another layer to the debacle is the fact that Genentech has only tested Avastin for breast cancer or lung cancer treatment at a dose double that prescribed for colon cancer. Despite calls from physicians to test lower amounts, Genentech has resisted:
The higher cost of using Avastin in breast and lung cancer, compared with colon cancer, is a result of cancer drugs' being priced on the basis of weight. In colon cancer, Genentech tested Avastin at a dose of 5 milligrams of the drug per kilogram — or 2.2 pounds — of the patient's body weight. But in lung and breast cancer, the company tested the drug at a dose of 10 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

Because the actual cost of producing Avastin is a fraction of what Genentech charges for it, some analysts and doctors had expected the company to lower Avastin's price per milligram for use in lung and breast cancer.

Dr. Leonard Saltz, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, noted that Genentech had not tested the Avastin at the dose level for colon cancer in large-scale trials of lung and breast cancer. As a result, no one really knows whether the lower dose might turn out to be equally effective in lung and breast cancer, he said. Besides costing less, he said, a lower dose might have fewer side effects.

"There are no meaningful data to allow us to address that question," he said.

The whole point of medical science is to improve the quality of people’s lives, but I don’t think anyone considers financial ruin to be such a desirable outcome. Genentech is in a real position to address this by either charging less for Avastin or testing lower doses of the drug (regardless, still making a healthy profit). Especially since this second option could have the added bonus of reducing side effects, the lack of tests at a lower dose is upsetting. In science, all knowledge is good knowledge, so it’s time for Genentech to get on the ball here.

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most heavily subsidized sectors of the American economy, supported by taxpayers through billions of dollars of federally funded biomedical research in universities and research centers across the nation. People overwhelmingly support this cause, though, for good reason. They believe in the promise of modern medicine to improve people’s lives, and they are willing to pay for it. In return for their initial financial support, though, these people should expect to enjoy fair access to the treatments that they have in part funded. Charging inflated fees for these drugs is equivalent to making patients pay for them twice and is neither fair nor honest.

Science Gets Googly

How do you know how important a website is? You probably already have a good idea without looking at any numbers, but if you want to get all quantitative about it, one way would be to look at how many hits it gets per day. The more commonly-used measure, though, is its Google PageRank, which is based not only on how many other webpages link to that page, but also how important the pages are that are doing the linking (based on who links to those pages).

Editorial note: I hope that we don’t put too much weight on PageRanks, because for some reason The Scientific Activist doesn’t have one yet, despite boasting over 100,000 visitors in its first month! What’s wrong, Google? Was it something I said? I can make it up to you. I promise. Pleeeeeaaaaaase….

Anyways, where was I?

Oh, yes, so today Nature magazine reported that some researchers are pushing to use this same PageRank technology to rate scientific journals. Currently, the importance of a journal is quantitatively measured by a number called the ISI Impact Factor. The Impact Factor of a journal is the number of times articles from that journal are cited by other articles, divided by the number of articles it publishes (citations per article). Not everyone is satisfied with this system, and in another entry in the eternal debate on quality versus quantity, Nature explains:
Now Johan Bollen and his colleagues at the Research Library of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are focusing on Google's PageRank (PR) algorithm. The algorithm provides a kind of peer assessment of the value of a web page, by counting not just the number of pages linking to it, but also the number of pages pointing to those links, and so on. So a link from a popular page is given a higher weighting than one from an unpopular page.

The algorithm can be applied to research publications by analysing how many times those who cite a paper are themselves cited. Whereas the IF measures crude 'popularity', PR is a measure of prestige, says Bollen. He predicts that metrics such as the PR ranking may come to be more influential in the perception of a journal's status than the traditional IF. "Web searchers have collectively decided that PageRank helps them separate the wheat from the chaff," he says.

So, why do we even need to measure the relative importance of scientific journals at all? For bragging rights, of course!

Well, maybe there’s a little more to it than that:
Ranking journals and publications is not just an academic exercise. Such schemes are increasingly used by funding agencies to assess the research of individuals and departments. They also serve as a guide for librarians choosing which journals to subscribe to. All this puts pressure both on researchers to publish in journals with high rankings and on journal editors to attract papers that will boost their journal's profile.

People in the scientific community already have a basic idea of the relative importance of different journals. For example, a scientist knows that The Journal of Biological Chemistry is more prestigious than Protein and Peptide Letters, just like you probably know that is a more influential website than, well, Scientists can already agree on the basic rankings, at least at the top. The vast majority of scientists would consider Science and Nature to be the “best” journals to publish in. There would probably be a pretty strong consensus on the next set of journals as well, which would include Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Cell. The further down you go, though, the messier it gets. That’s where the Impact Factor comes into play.

Near the top, though, the Impact Factor does not line up with this general consensus, but the PageRank does... sort of.

Where the Impact Factor and PageRank fall short, a different measure called the Y-Factor - a combination of the Impact Factor and the PageRank - seems to really get the job done. Of course, this all depends on what exactly we want to measure, but if we are just interested in attaching numbers to what we already know, then the Y-factor puts the other systems to shame. Apparently, Bollen agrees as well:
Bollen, however, proposes combining the two metrics. "One can more completely evaluate the status of a journal by comparing and aggregating the different ways it has acquired that status," he says. Some journals, he points out, can have high IFs but low PRs (perhaps indicating a popular but less prestigious journal), and vice versa (for a high-quality but niche publication). Using information from different metrics would also make the rankings harder to manipulate, he adds. So Bollen and his colleagues propose ranking journals according to the product of the IF and PR, a measure they call the Y-factor….

…But for Bollen, ranking journals more effectively by combining different ranking systems could help protect the integrity of science. He warns that scientists and funding agencies have used the ranking system well beyond its intended purpose. "We've heard horror stories from colleagues who have been subjected to evaluation by their departments or national funding agencies which they felt were strongly influenced by their personal IF," he says. "Many fear this may eventually reduce the healthy diversity of viewpoints and research subjects that we would normally hope to find in the scholarly community."

So, the message here is that if people are going to abuse or overuse these rankings, we might as well make them as accurate as possible. I could buy that. However, if we really want to be scientific about this, we need to see detailed studies that show that the Y-Factor works the best in all parts of the rankings, not just at the top. This could be based on surveys of scientist opinion, or on other less subjective measures. If the Y-Factor really does prove to be a better measure of a journal’s impact, then the scientific community should embrace the improvement.

Update (19 February 15:35 GMT): Interestingly, The Scientific Activist suddenly has a Google PageRank of 5 (out of 10). Coincidence?

Update (19 February 20:25 GMT): This is weird: now my PageRank is back to zero. WTF?

Feb 16, 2006

Tangled Bank at Kete Were

I'm late on this one, but the newest edition of the Tangled Bank is up at Kete Were. The Tangled Bank is a biweekly collection of some of the best science writing on the web, so it's worth a look. Go check it out!

Feb 14, 2006

The Struggle Continues

For the past week I’ve been preoccupied with the NASA censorship scandal, causing me to miss several stories I wanted to cover. There’s no point to living in the past, but I did want to mention three stories that are particularly relevant, all three providing evidence that even as an obstacle to scientific progress was being removed, the struggle against political interference in the environmental sciences continues and will require continued vigilance.

First in the lineup is an week-old story from the 7 February edition of The Oregonian that I originally came across at A Change in the Wind. I was particularly interested in this case because the authorities did not even seem to try to hide the fact that they were retaliating against scientists for publishing data they didn’t like. The Oregonian reports:
The federal government has abruptly suspended funding for Oregon State University research that concluded federally sponsored logging after the 2002 Biscuit fire in southwest Oregon set back the recovery of forests.

The action came after a team of scientists from OSU and the U.S. Forest Service published their results last month in Science, the nation's leading scientific journal.

It escalated the controversy surrounding the findings, which undercut Bush administration-backed arguments for logging after wildfires. The research, led by a 29-year-old graduate student, already had come under attack within OSU's College of Forestry by professors who contend that logging and replanting speed recovery of burned forests.

In this case, there truly might be a scientific controversy here, since it is fairly obvious that allowing dead vegetation to build up can provide more fuel for forest fires. Fortunately, the scientific community has built in devices to address controversial findings, primarily through peer review—where scientists judge the validity of other scientists’ work to determine whether or not it will be published—and independent verification—where there is an unstated assumption that results can at any moment be proven wrong by other scientists being unable to replicate them.

In this case, though, the federal government has preempted the debate by freezing the funding of the Oregon State University researchers who published the findings. The controversy here stems from the fact that the Science paper mentioned a specific piece of logging legislation, the Walden bill. This is a valid complaint, since such a mention could violate the terms of their funding, and action could be appropriate, especially if the authors had the intention of violating their contract. However, that does not seem to be the case:
Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science and former president of Stanford University, said the federal move was a "considerable political escalation," coming after the attempt by OSU professors to derail publication of the paper.

He said the mention of the Walden bill was the journal's mistake. The authors of the research report had asked journal editors to remove the mention, but they inadvertently did not….

…Kennedy, the editor of Science, said he could not see how Donato's paper could be seen as trying to influence legislation. The research findings might be influential, he said, but to bar them "would cripple anyone from ever working on a science problem with a policy impact."

I especially like Kennedy's last point since the results of work on a variety of research topics could influence politics. Especially since the mention of the Walden bill was an accidental oversight on the part of Science, the federal response is extreme and uncalled-for, and it is clear retribution for publishing results unfavorable to federal policy. We could learn something here from traditional conservatives and their constant calls for the government to keep its hands out of the mix, since the scientific community can handle this issue much better.

A few days later, on 10 February, The Washington Post reported that President Bush hasn’t put his money where his mouth is when it comes to honoring an earlier commitment to fully funding environmental and conservation projects:
Grants to state and local governments for land and water conservation would be cut 40 percent, and money for the Environmental Protection Agency's network of libraries for scientists would be slashed severely under President Bush's proposed budget….

…Early in his presidency, Bush called for restoring the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to the full $900 million authorized by Congress. Last year, it was approved at $142 million. For 2007, he wants just $85 million in grants for creating and preserving non-federal parks, forest land and wildlife refuges, a 40 percent cut.

"This is the most troubling budget we've seen from this White House," said Heather Taylor, deputy legislative director for Natural Resources Defense Council.

The proposal sent to Congress this week would trim EPA's budget by nearly 5 percent, down to $7.2 billion, and the Interior Department's budget by 2.4 percent, to $9.1 billion.

Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., said it shows the environment isn't a Bush administration priority. "We cannot allow this dangerous trend to continue," said Jeffords, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

While starving the EPA of funding isn’t as egregious as the outright censorship of scientists at NASA, the Bush administration apparently lived up to its reputation in that department as well this week. On 11 February, The Washington Post reported that James Hansen, the scientist who recently spoke out against being silenced by the Bush appointee George Deutsch at NASA, now alleges similar censorship is occurring at another federal administration, NOAA:
James E. Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who sparked an uproar last month by accusing the Bush administration of keeping scientific information from reaching the public, said Friday that officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are also muzzling researchers who study global warming.

Hansen, speaking in a panel discussion about science and the environment before a packed audience at the New School university, said that while he hopes his own agency will soon adopt a more open policy, NOAA insists on having "a minder" monitor its scientists when they discuss their findings with journalists….

…After the panel discussion -- which also featured Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer, American Enterprise Institute fellow Steven Hayward and Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich -- Hansen said he knows of NOAA scientists who are chafing at the administration's restrictions but are afraid to speak out.

New School President Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said he invited Hansen to speak because he was "very concerned" about what he called the administration's efforts to steer the debate over global warming: "It's not only inappropriate; it stifles the very debate we're trying to have today, and that we need to have on this issue."

Kerrey said of Hansen, "He's not a radical; he's a scientist who's studied the issue. Let the disagreement occur without stifling one side of the argument."

In a good commentary on the piece, B and B notes that this type of interference has been going on for some time:
Obviously, I do not know what lies behind Hansen's allegations. But last August, Chris Mooney wrote two posts about a what he believed was a mysterious lack of press releases from NOAA for "cutting edge" climate research that they were funding.

Not long after that, and about a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Raw Story reported that NOAA, which is the parent agency of the National Weather Service, was insisting that all media contact by employees be pre-approved.

In case you needed any more evidence that the George Deutsch scandal at NASA wasn’t an isolated incident, then here you go. Based on the feedback I’ve received, though, not many people seem to harbor that illusion. I’m optimistic that in the wake of the NASA incident, outright censorship of science will be more difficult, and I’m encouraged to see so many scientists speaking out—something scientists are generally very hesitant to do. However, political interference in science is nothing new (remember Galileo?), and everyone in the scientific community will need to remain vigilant to minimize the damage of these affronts, which have been particularly frequent under the current administration.

Feb 13, 2006

Having Fun on Valentine's Day, Scientifically

Things have been pretty serious at The Scientific Activist lately, so in the spirit of getting everyone in the Valentine’s Day mood (gag!), I hope this post will lighten things up.

We all know how normal people celebrate Valentine’s Day: either going out on a hot date or, more likely, sulking alone at home and possibly crying themselves to sleep. Many of you, though, may wonder how scientists—those mysterious folks who drape themselves in white lab coats and lurk in the shadows, hidden away from the rest of society—celebrate this dubious holiday.
You've wounded me, dear;
And how can it be?
You've reached in and disabled
My p53.

Something is growing,
You've heard the rumour
Love grows in my heart
And it isn't a tumor.

--Josh Siepel

Well, there's your answer. While others may send each other romantic valentines, scientists send each other valinetines, named after the illustrious molecule valine, one of the twenty amino acids that act as the building blocks for all of the diverse proteins in your body.

A diagram of the amino acid valine, taken from here

Here's another example:
If I could draw a structure of our love,
I'd draw it in Lewis dot.
Fuck the Fischer projections, baby,
Cause your lone pair gets me so hot.

--Jen Dulin

What exactly is a valinetine? Jen Dulin, a graduate student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the world’s foremost expert on valinetines, explains:
The time has come for us all to express our darkest sexual feelings to our friends and loved ones by composing poetic valinetines. Let's all continue the long-standing tradition of blending science terms and crude, vulgar sex into romantic poems.

Although she is widely credited for founding the valinetine movement, Dulin explains that the valinetine is a longstanding sacred tradition:

It is the combination of two basic human desires, sex and science, in its purest form, like Hofmann acid. I should emphasize that even though we have only been doing valinetines for five years, it is a tradition older than time, and its origin can never be revealed. It is too powerful for the human mind to comprehend. The message of the valinetine is that science, at its core, is intensely sexual, and that as scientists we should embrace that and use it to our advantage. The best way to enjoy the valinetine is by sharing a bottle of 15-year-old port with a loved one, or a co-worker. As long as there is paralyzing sexual tension in the air, the valinetine has done its job.

Science and sex? Who could ask for more?

What follows are authentic valinetines from four scientists-in-training, all of whom graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in biochemistry and/or genetics and are now attending graduate school in various corners of the globe. Also, in order to prove that I don’t hate The Battalion, A&M’s student newspaper, I have linked each name to a time that person appeared in the paper.

We’ll start things off with the founder herself, Jen Dulin:

Lover, whenever you look at me
I feel like my heart is electrophoresed
The voltage of your lust moves my DNA
In a style even tris buffer cannot delay.

--Jen Dulin

Here is a contribution from yours truly:

Although I can’t assign your love,
Like a 3D protein spectrum,
I know magnetic attraction
Means to you I will always come.

--Nick Anthis

Next, we have Jason Ford, who is currently studying at the University of Keele:

I love your jokes and your funny tricks
With your flowing dress the color of chromium six.
You make me smile, you make me laugh.
Let's sneak away to the 37 degree water bath!

--Jason Ford

Finally, we wrap things up with a great one from Josh Siepel, a graduate student at the University of Sussex:

Pardon me dear
If I may be so bold,
But I want to find out
What makes your proteins fold.

It's not that I wish
To disrupt bonds hydrophobic;
I just want to engage
In a bit of aerobics.

Your active site
Is so terribly appealing
And I might say your reagents
Are especially revealing

Of the intentions you have
For a chemical reaction
So let me bust out my zinc loop
And let's get with the action.

--Josh Siepel

Do you have your own original valinetine that you’d like to share with everyone else? Feel free to post it in the comments to play a role in keeping Jen Dulin’s dream alive. Let’s have some fun!

Disclaimer: I take absolutely no responsibility for what you’ve just read. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to take credit, but instead I have to concede that I’m just not creative, original, or funny enough to come up with this kind of stuff. Instead full credit goes to Jen Dulin, who invented the valinetine and is a hell of a scientist as well.

Feb 12, 2006

I Did It for the Children

I have some good news for readers of The Scientific Activist. I have made all of my links to New York Times articles permanent, so that you can still access the full text of articles I link to after they are archived and only available through Times Select. Now, followers of science and politics can enjoy access to the full Scientific Activist experience for generations and generations to come! If you would like to do the same, you can use the New York Times Link Generator, which was created by Aaron Swartz. Credit goes to Morgan Brown for pointing me toward the link generator.

Feb 11, 2006

What a Month!

Today marks the one month anniversary of The Scientific Activist, and what a month it has been! The site has already had over 100,000 visitors, with the 100,000th coming on 10 February, sometime around 20:20 GMT. I even managed to sneak into The New York Times once. To mark the occasion, I’d like to take a moment to look back at some of the highlights from the last month.

I kicked it all off on 11 January with my post “What Is a Scientific Activist?” which laid out what this site would be all about. After that post, I took on a variety of issues, from transgenic crops to political interference in science. The following posts are some of my favorites:

One of the most interesting experiences I had, though, was when I went where Oxford scientists fear to tread, to an animal rights protest, in order to take in the experience and to find out what the protesters were all about. The results of this experience were written up in my personal favorite, “Caught in the Line of Fire: Animal Rights Activists Take Over Oxford”.

Of course, the biggest break was when I discovered that NASA censor George Deutsch had lied about having a college degree, causing him to resign from his post. Although this removed one force working against the spread of scientific information, there are many more to take on and many actively working against the spread of scientifically accurate information on a variety of topics.

I hope you enjoyed reading these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them, and I hope you’ll join me for another month of taking on political interference in science, discussing proper applications of science, and promoting the cause of science in general.

And the Verdict Is...

… “research misbehavior”?

(awkward silence)

On Friday the University of Pittsburgh released the findings of a panel investigating the involvement of its own Gerald P. Schatten, the American coauthor on South Korean Hwang Woo Suk’s now discredited 2005 Science paper detailing the isolation of various embryonic stem cell lines achieved through cloning. Although it has was determined some time ago that Hwang intentionally fabricated data (Seoul National University recently fired him, and he now faces criminal charges), Schatten’s fate has remained largely unknown.

The conclusions of the Pittsburgh panel, though, probably won’t provide the closure that many were hoping for. In fact, the charges of “research misbehavior” may raise more questions than provide answers and could be interpreted as more of a cop-out, now leaving Schatten’s fate up to Arthur Levine, dean of Pittsburgh’s medical school. The Washington Post reports:
While these failings "would not strictly constitute research misconduct as narrowly defined by University of Pittsburgh policies" -- a definition that requires proof of falsification, fabrication or plagiarism -- "it would be an example of research misbehavior," the report concluded.

The panel recommended that the university administration "implement whatever corrective or disciplinary actions are commensurate with this finding." That puts Pitt's medical school dean, Arthur Levine, in the awkward position of deciding on the punishment for a faculty member he personally recruited in 2001 amid great fanfare -- and great expense, as he showered Schatten with millions of dollars in research resources.

The report encourages Pitt to revise its guidelines for ethical practices in research to leave no doubt that the kinds of activities Schatten undertook are unacceptable.

The panel concluded that Schatten did not participate in fraud and was not aware of any fraudulent activities until several months after the 2005 paper was published. Still, Schatten has done pretty much everything he could do to appear guilty, backtracking on several previous assertions and providing false statements, as documented by The New York Times:
When suspicions about Dr. Hwang's human cloning papers became public, Dr. Schatten was quick to distance himself. He told the Pittsburgh panel that he had written most of the text of the 2005 paper. Three weeks later, he told Seoul National University that he had not written the paper, the panel said.

After telling the panel at first that he was the senior co-author, Dr. Schatten later denied it, saying he was just one of two leading authors.

"This second version does not correspond with the fact, for example, that he is the one who responded to reviewers' comments," the panel said.

The panel, whose chairman was Dr. Jerome Rosenberg of the university's research integrity office, noted that Dr. Schatten's effort to distance himself from Dr. Hwang and his publications stood "in sharp contrast to the full participation of Dr. Schatten in the media spotlight following publication of the paper."

By failing to follow up on anomalies in what Dr. Hwang was telling him, Dr. Schatten, in the panel's view, "did not exercise a sufficiently critical perspective as a scientist." He also told Science that all 25 authors had read the manuscript before submission, a statement the panel called false.

Dr. Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association, said Dr. Schatten's behavior was "a textbook example of divorcing credit for papers from responsibility and accountability." It is acceptable to discuss a paper's merits with an editor before submission, but not during the review, Dr. Rennie said.

So, it appears that all Schatten is guilty of is wanting to be in the spotlight a little bit too much and ignoring anything that would keep him from being there. That’s hardly a crime, and it’s dificult for any of us to say how we would react in the same situation. At the same time, Schatten’s lack of insight or oversight was a dereliction of his fundamental duty as a scientist and the aftermath has had been felt in the scientific community and beyond. Scandals like these shake the public’s faith in science, and for an issue like embryonic stem cell research that finds itself in such a politically precarious position, losing this support can have grave consequences for what research scientists will be able to undertake in the future.

Although Schatten has done nothing criminal, he was in a position to prevent a devastating case of scientific fraud. Instead of being the skeptic that he is called to be, he took the easier road that led to more personal gain, and the effect was far from trivial. I don’t know what type of discipline is appropriate in this case, but undoubtedly, all interested parties will be watching those who do make this decision very closely to see what type of message they are willing to send and what precedent they are prepared to set.

Feb 9, 2006

Deutschgate in the Media

The George Deutsch scandal instantly became one of the top stories in the press this week, and the coverage has been widespread, even where I live in the United Kingdom. Andrew Revkin, the author of the New York Times article about Deutsch’s resignation, deserves a round of applause for being the first to bring the story into the mainstream media. He contacted me late Monday night, only a few hours after I posted my original findings. I would also like to direct readers to two Texas papers, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Houston Chronicle, which both ran good stories with a local focus. In addition, I will be on The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 tonight at 10:00 pm GMT.

Not everyone has covered this story well, and some haven’t even covered it at all. Although The Washington Post did cover the Deutsch resignation on Wednesday, the same day as The New York Times, it did not mention the source of the information on Deutsch’s lying about having a college degree. Although it briefly mentioned The Scientific Activist in an article on Thursday, it never acknowledged the fact that I personally called their National Desk and described my findings on Monday night, the same night I published them on the web! That’s the last time I give them a hot news tip.

Incomplete coverage isn’t as bad as no coverage, which is what's happening at Texas A&M University’s student paper The Battalion. There hasn't been a single article about the NASA censorship scandal, even though the original story came out over a week and a half ago. All of this is occurring despite the fact that the story is about A&M and the fact that I talked to the editors of The Battalion on Monday and Tuesday, and I submitted a letter about this for publication! Why hasn’t their been any coverage? Editor in Chief Melissa Filbin has the explanation. “I just don’t see the angle,” she told me. Are you serious? No angle? Filbin told me explicitly on Tuesday that there would be no coverage of this story. Unsurprisingly, a writer at the paper described to me what’s going on as “Lots of politics.”

If you would like to submit a letter for publication, submit it to Please note that the paper's website states that letters are supposed to be 200 words or less.

I used to write for The Battalion, and in general I think it is professional and well-done, especially for a student paper. This situation is pretty sad, though. I hope that the editors of The Battalion will change their minds, because so far they have done a great disservice to the students of Texas A&M University, many of whom rely on the student paper to find out what’s going on in the world.

Update (9 February 23:59 GMT): It looks like The Battalion will be running a story about Deutsch this Friday after all. Thanks go to lunaliar for bringing this to my attention. I called the Editor in Chief, and although she wouldn't tell me much, she verified that the article would indeed feature an interview with Deutsch himself. Deutsch only just broke his media silence, but based on what he's said so far, I think we can expect something pretty ridiculous. I hope that The Battalion will provide a detailed background on the story, but since it has waived that option so far by not reporting on it at all, I'll believe it when I see it. Either way, I don't think it would hurt to keep them on their toes, so I'll leave the contact information up in case you have anything you want to say.

Update (10 February 9:26 GMT): Forget about what I said in the last update. The Battalion is in fact not running a story today on the NASA scandal, despite Melissa Filbin telling me and others that there would be one.

Update (10 February 20:52 GMT): I probably should have made this update earlier, but I have been busy all day making up for lost time in the research lab this week! As it has already been noted in the comments for this post, The Battalion did apparently run an AP story on Deutsch today, although I haven't seen it (it does not appear on the paper's website). While I am glad that there has been some coverage, this isn't a substitute for more in depth reporting, and it definitely does not make up for not reporting on this incident at all until now. I should make it clear that this has nothing to do with mentioning me or The Scientific Activist. Instead, this is about the students who relied on this paper for their news and were left in the dark on this subject. Regardless, The Battalion has proven itself in the past to be a professional paper, and with the large student body and wealth of resources available to it by operating at such a big public university, I have faith that it can overcome this and not drop the ball the next time a story like this comes up.

Update:I took down the contact information for The Battalion since it was no longer relevant.

Feb 8, 2006

NASA Science Censor Resigns

It’s official. George Deutsch, the Bush appointee and science censor at NASA who lied about graduating from Texas A&M University, has resigned thanks to the efforts of a little website that some of you may have heard of. Andrew Revkin of The New York Times reports:
Mr. Deutsch's educational record was first challenged on Monday by Nick Anthis, who graduated from Texas A&M last year with a biochemistry degree and has been writing a Web log on science policy,

After Mr. Anthis read about the problems at NASA, he said in an interview: "It seemed like political figures had really overstepped the line. I was just going to write some commentary on this when somebody tipped me off that George Deutsch might not have graduated."

He posted a blog entry asserting this after he checked with the university's association of former students. He reported that the association said Mr. Deutsch received no degree.

A copy of Mr. Deutsch's résumé was provided to The Times by someone working in NASA headquarters who, along with many other NASA employees, said Mr. Deutsch played a small but significant role in an intensifying effort at the agency to exert political control over the flow of information to the public.

Such complaints came to the fore starting in late January, when James E. Hansen, the climate scientist, and several midlevel public affairs officers told The Times that political appointees, including Mr. Deutsch, were pressing to limit Dr. Hansen's speaking and interviews on the threats posed by global warming.

(emphasis added)

When I originally posted my discoveries on Deutsch, I did not have access to his resume, so I only mentioned that he “may have intentionally misled” people. After being informed that he explicitly stated that he obtained a B.A. in Journalism from A&M in 2003, though, I can now say that he lied directly and intentionally. Although he would not have been qualified to be in his position even if he did have a degree, it is fortunate that this has come to light because it forced him to resign. Although the problem of political interference in science runs much deeper, this is a necessary first step toward addressing it.

NASA scientist James Hansen makes an interesting point about the coverage of Deutsch’s lack of a college degree:
Yesterday, Dr. Hansen said that the questions about Mr. Deutsch's credentials were important, but were a distraction from the broader issue of political control of scientific information.

"He's only a bit player," Dr. Hansen said of Mr. Deutsch. " The problem is much broader and much deeper and it goes across agencies. That's what I'm really concerned about."

"On climate, the public has been misinformed and not informed," he said. "The foundation of a democracy is an informed public, which obviously means an honestly informed public. That's the big issue here."

Hansen is really on to something here, and instead of the story being about a 24-year-old lying, it should be about this: how did this guy, who already had dubious qualifications, make it into NASA with such an obvious lie on his resume? To work for a federal agency, including NASA, extensive background checks are usually required. If I was able to uncover the truth about Deutsch in one phone call, then he must have been placed in his current position without any investigation, due to his loyal service on the Bush presidential campaign.

For a president that paints himself as a champion of national security, the NASA incident is a major blow to Bush’s credibility. This isn’t the first time either, with George Deutsch now joining the ranks of Michael Brown, the embattled former director of FEMA, and Harriet Myers, Bush’s Supreme Court nominee who was subsequently withdrawn. Congratulations, Deutsch, this is a pretty elite circle!

The NASA censorship scandal was originally about partisan figures compromising the science, and it still is, but now it’s also about something much deeper and much more troubling. I don’t know how many others there are out there like Deutsch, but it shouldn’t be hard to find out. Journalists, it’s time to make some phone calls!

In the meantime, NASA needs the authority to remove the rest of those who are interfering with the scientific process for partisan gains. Although NASA's credibility has tragically taken a big hit here due to political interference, the real victim is the science. And, when the science suffers, we are all affected.