The Scientific Activist (Archives)


May 31, 2006

Insurers Jump on the Environmental Bandwagon

Although it’s becoming increasingly accepted that addressing global warming and curbing greenhouse gas emissions might be economically beneficial in a general sense, the June 5th issue of U.S. News & World Report describes how some individual businesses are already cashing in on new environmental efforts:
The climate strategies the insurers have spelled out aren't about avoiding losses; they're about generating revenue. For example, AIG aims to get in on Europe's carbon-trading scheme, a market valued at $10 billion last year and, although climbing out of a precipitous fall a few weeks ago, one that is expected to surpass $25 billion in 2006. Even though the United States has not signed on to Kyoto and does not participate, AIG says it will invest in projects around the globe aimed at generating credits to trade on this market. (Buyers would be factories or power companies that are struggling to meet their emissions limits under the treaty.)

Karl Schultz of the consulting group Energy Edge in London says there's "something of a feeding frenzy" of investors clamoring for United Nations approval of their green energy projects so they can trade credits. "Now you're seeing a whole new breed of people coming out of the more traditional financial institutions--the pure business suits as opposed to suits that carry the green badge," Schultz says. AIG also wants to advise corporations, consulting with them on how to get into the carbon market and even developing a new insurance policy to protect against the risk of a project's failure to generate tradable credits.

Although these corporations are just looking out for themselves and their profits, now the incentives are there to help their interests more closely align with those of the environment. In a sense, this is science and technology policy at its best, with specific government requirements spurring innovations that should offer a benefit to society in general. Until the US gets on board and ratifies Kyoto, though, the incentives will probably not be strong enough to have the desired effect.

The U.S. News article also mentions the possibility that insurers are gaining a “new climate awareness” in part because of the severity (and associated costs) of recent hurricane seasons, a phenomenon that could be related to global warming. Although the extent to which global warming has increased the frequency and intensity of hurricanes is still a scientifically controversial topic, an increase in ocean temperature would be expected to have those effects. To that end, today’s New York Times reports on two upcoming studies that demonstrate a correlation between hurricane strength and intensity and increasing temperatures:
In one new paper, to appear in a coming issue of Geophysical Research Letters, Matthew Huber of the Purdue department of earth and atmospheric sciences and Ryan L. Sriver, a graduate student there, calculate the total damage that could be caused by storms worldwide, using data normally applied to reconciling weather forecast models with observed weather events.

The Purdue scientists found that their results matched earlier work by Kerry A. Emanuel, a hurricane expert at M.I.T. Dr. Emanuel has argued that global warming, specifically the warming of the tropical oceans, is already increasing the power expended by hurricanes….

… In a statement accompanying the release of the study, Dr. Huber said the results were important because the overall measure of cyclone activity, whether through more intense storms or more frequent storms, had doubled with a one-quarter-degree increase in average global temperature.

In the other new study, Dr. Emanuel and Michael E. Mann, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University, compared records of global sea surface temperatures with those of the tropical Atlantic and said the recent strengthening of hurricanes was attributable largely to the rise in ocean surface temperature.

Although I can’t really evaluate these studies without having access to them, these reports seem to give more empirical weight to an idea that is already conceptually solid. If these results are borne out, the trend in storm intensity wouldn’t be expected to change anytime soon on its own, so it’s not surprising that insurers are taking notice. Hopefully their newfound environmentally friendly activities can help reverse the trend.

May 29, 2006

Blogosphere – 1, Apple – 0

On Friday, May 26th, the California 6th District Court of Appeal, in its ruling on Apple v. Does, issued a protective order preventing Apple from seeking the identities of those who had leaked what Apple called confidential information about upcoming products. In doing so, the court extended to the blogosphere the basic First Amendment freedom of speech protections that have long been available to the traditional media. Although Judge James P. Kleinberg had originally ruled in Apple’s favor on March 11, 2005, the new unanimous decision by a three judge panel effectively overturned Judge Kleinberg’s earlier decision:

The full ruling can be found here, but in short:
Apple Computer, Inc. (Apple), a manufacturer of computer hardware and software, brought this action alleging that persons unknown caused the wrongful publication on the World Wide Web of Apple’s secret plans to release a device that would facilitate the creation of digital live sound recordings on Apple computers. In an effort to identify the source of the disclosures, Apple sought and obtained authority to issue civil subpoenas to the publishers of the Web sites where the information appeared and to the email service provider for one of the publishers. The publishers moved for a protective order to prevent any such discovery. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the publishers had involved themselves in the unlawful misappropriation of a trade secret. We hold that this was error because (1) the subpoena to the email service provider cannot be enforced consistent with the plain terms of the federal Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2712); (2) any subpoenas seeking unpublished information from petitioners would be unenforceable through contempt proceedings in light of the California reporter’s shield (Cal. Const., art. I, § 2, subd (b); Evid. Code, § 1070); and (3) discovery of petitioners’ sources is also barred on this record by the conditional constitutional privilege against compulsory disclosure of confidential sources (see Mitchell v. Superior Court (1984) 37 Cal.3d 268 (Mitchell)). Accordingly, we will issue a writ of mandate directing the trial court to grant the motion for a protective order.

Although several organizations filed briefs in favor of the bloggers, only a few supported Apple. Interestingly, this included one of our favorite drug companies here at The Scientific Activist, Genentech.

Although the results of this decision only officially apply to California, it should be relevant to the rest of the nation, as journalists in general find themselves in an environment increasingly hostile to confidentiality. This includes a recent statement by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that journalists can now be prosecuted for releasing classified information. Regardless, the current decision was decided correctly and is a major victory for bloggers in general.

May 26, 2006

Oxford University Granted New Injunction Against Animal Rights Protesters

The following is a copy of a press release published by the University of Oxford detailing the new injunction it was granted today against animal rights protesters. With the exception of the fifty-person limit on protests, which seems rather extreme, I think the terms of the injunction are reasonable and justified given the tactics of these organizations.

The University of Oxford has been granted a new injunction by the High Court to protect staff, current and former students, and all contractors working for the collegiate University from intimidation, harassment, and potential violence from animal rights activists.

The order, which was made by Mr Justice Holland on Friday 26 May 2006 and replaces earlier rulings obtained by the University, has extended the groups of people given legal protection. The latest judgement has added all contractors who supply any goods or services to the collegiate University as a new category of ‘protected persons’. Previously staff, students, alumni and contractors working on the biomedical research building were covered.

The 'exclusion zone' - the area where protesters are prohibited from entering except to attend Thursday or other permitted demonstrations – has also been increased by the High Court. The area has now been extended further along South Parks Road to St Cross Road and further down Mansfield Road. The court has also recognised the disruption and distress caused by protesters using megaphones, klaxons, sirens, drums, whistles and other noise amplification devices within the exclusion zone. Restrictions have now been placed on the use of such devices by animal rights protesters. Mr Justice Holland’s ruling banned all noise amplification devices within the exclusion zone, along Mansfield Road and along St Cross Road. The order continues to provide those opposed to the building of the new biomedical research facility with the opportunity to hold weekly demonstrations close to the site every Thursday. Protesters will still be able to organise larger, national demonstrations in the city at other times with the appropriate authority from the police.

Dr Julie Maxton, Registrar of the University of Oxford, said: ‘Today’s judgement represents a significant advance for the cause of legitimate and essential scientific research at Oxford University. We all have the right to work and study in a safe and peaceful environment, free from threat, intimidation and disruption. That right is what the court has acknowledged today.

‘This ruling extends legal protection from such unlawful behaviour to a wider range of people. It also offers a welcome measure of relief to many members of the University who have been subjected to unjustifiable harassment and distress.

‘We acknowledge that some individuals and groups are opposed to the building of the University’s new biomedical facility and to the potentially life-saving research to be carried out there. As a University deeply committed to freedom of speech, we fully recognise the right of such individuals and groups to express their views within the framework of the law. The judgement protects that right, while making it clear that it cannot be used as a cloak for unlawful activity and behaviour.

‘We will wish to keep under review the operation of the new ruling and its impact on those it is intended to protect and those it is intended to restrain.’

The injunction also states that protesters should not picket or demonstrate within 100 yards of the residence of any protected person, anywhere in the country. It also makes it an offence for an animal rights protester to try to identify any vehicle entering or leaving the exclusion zone.

Mr Justice Holland also indicated that the injunction should be brought back to the High Court periodically for review, or earlier in light of any new evidence.

Notes to Editors:

  • The University was granted a separate injunction on April 11 2006, which runs parallel to this new order. This ruling prohibits campaigners from congregating or picketing within 100 yards of the Examination Schools on the High Street or of Ewert House in Summertown, Oxford, between 18 April and 20 July, and 10 September and 31 October 2006.

  • The University was first granted an injunction by Mr Justice Grigson in November 2004. The University returned to the High Court in March this year following increased threats, criminal damage and disruptive activity since work resumed on the biomedical research facility in November 2005.

  • Amongst the protesters covered by the injunction are: John Curtin; Amanda Richards; Max Gastone; Robin Webb; Greg Avery; Natasha Avery; SPEAK Campaigns; SHAC; Oxford Animal Rights Group; People Against Cruelty to Animals - West Midlands; West Midlands Animal Action; Animal Liberation Front; Save Newchurch Guinea Pigs Campaign. Mel Broughton and Robert Cogswell have entered in to separate undertakings with the University under the same terms as the injunction.

  • The order includes provisions for a maximum of 50 people to protest once a week within the exclusion zone on Thursdays between 1pm and 5pm. However, protesters will not be able to use any noise amplification devices. Campaigners will retain the right to apply to Thames Valley Police to hold additional protests or demonstrations for larger numbers, providing such an application complies with Public Order legislation.

  • The Defendants are prohibited from knowingly picketing or demonstrating within 100 yards of the residences of those individuals protected by this Order.

  • The Order made by Mr Justice Holland comes into effect

The Scientific Activist is Moving!

This marks my 100th post on The Scientific Activist, and I couldn't think of a more appropriate time to make the big announcement that I first alluded to last month when I retured from India. In about a week, my blog will move to Seed magazine's ScienceBlogs site as part of its second round release. Over at Science and Politics, Bora Zivkovic, who's also joining the Seed site, has listed some of the other blogs that will be moving with us. Needless to say, I'll be in great company there, and I hope I can live up to the high expectations the first round of bloggers there have already set. I promise I'll give you plenty of details about where to find me when the move actually takes place, but the current site isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It will continue to function as the archives of The Scientific Activist, and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, there's still plenty of blogging to come before the big move. Stay tuned!

Diversity of Perspectives Express Support for Animal Research at Pro-Test Meeting

On Monday, May 22nd, an audience of about 100 people joined the pro-research organization Pro-Test at a public meeting in the Oxford Town Hall, and in standard fashion The Scientific Activist was there to report all about it. The purpose of the meeting was to make the case for animal research from a variety of perspectives, get feedback from the crowd, and publicize Pro-Test and its upcoming march on June 3rd. The meeting began with statements from each of the scheduled speakers and concluded with Q&A from the audience. Although the event was scheduled from 7 to 9 pm, the meeting was extended an extra half hour because participation was so high. Although Pro-Test was founded in response to the prominent animal rights movement that has become a fact of life over the last couple of years in Oxford, the event focused much more on what the group is for, rather than what it’s against. The event appeared to be a success, allowing Pro-Test to continue the impressive momentum it has already built up.

Just as the later questions and comments demonstrated that the audience was incredibly diverse, the speakers also addressed animal research from a refreshingly wide range of perspectives. After an opening statement by Oxford student and Pro-Test committee member Alistair Fraser, who would MC the event, Pro-Test’s 16-year-old founder Laurie Pycroft discussed how his organization came to be in January of this year. Although he “never thought it would grow to this,” he was happy to be giving a voice to Oxford’s “silent majority” that supports animal research and the continued construction of the new biomedical research center that has engendered the ire of the animal rights protesters.

A poster seen at Pro-Test's February 25th march

As the organizers of the event struggled with microphone troubles, Dr. Andrew McMichael—a self-described “medical doctor who turned into a scientist about 30 years ago” and current Director of the Medical Research Council Human Immunology Unit at Oxford—made his case for the need for animal research, focusing specifically on HIV/AIDS. He described the important findings regarding HIV that have already been made using animal studies, including the proof that HIV in fact causes AIDS, which opened up the way for more detailed research and the eventual creation of about 20 different antiviral drugs to treat HIV (before this, he said that there only three antiviral drugs available for all viral diseases combined). As the need for an HIV vaccine becomes increasingly clear, McMichael described just how difficult such a feat is, with an effective clinical trial needing about 20,000 people in a high risk population and taking about five to ten years. Thus, animal research will play a necessary role in narrowing down the potential vaccines that are promising enough to merit such an investment.

As the Pro-Test committee solved the microphone problems (by turning off the sound system), the event continued with Dr. Ken Fleming, the head of Oxford’s Medical Sciences Division. “We’re living now in one of the golden ages of medicine,” he stated, noting the particular power of the Human Genome Project. “If we’re going to deliver the promise of the Human Genome Project, we need animal research.” He stressed the importance of the new research center for carrying on Oxford’s long legacy of impressive medical research, including the development of penicillin into a usable drug. “We should have been more vocal in the past,” he said, regretting that it has taken such tremendous efforts by Pro-Test to finally give people the courage to speak out against the intimidation of the animal rights movement.

Next up was Niki Shisler, an author who was there to give what she called a “personal perspective.” As the mother of a child with a form of muscular dystrophy, she said “this for me is not a philosophical issue. This is personal.” She called for people to stand up for the medical scientists who currently work so hard in the face of constant protests to do their work for the benefit of society.

Shisler was followed by Vicky Cowell, the Director of Patient’s Voice for Medical Advance. She began by discussing her daughter, who has grew up battling cystic fibrosis and is now a pro-research activist. She then described the work of her organization and how the tactics of the animal rights protesters have driven much of its work underground, having the ironic effect of making her organization have to present its annual award for animal welfare completely secretly.

Christopher Bickerton of Pro-Test spoke next and gave more insight on the founding and basic principles of Pro-Test. He particularly stressed the early explicit decision to be primarily pro-research rather than just against animal rights protesters. He also discussed Pro-Test’s recent publicity stunt of buying 10 shares of stock in GlaxoSmithKline, one of the organizations hardest hit by animal rights extremists. Although the purpose was to send the message that “animal research isn’t some dirty little secret,” I found the move rather worrying. If anything, it further confuses basic science with industry, a widespread problem undermining support for the sciences in general, and it could be construed as lending credence to the mistaken idea some animal rights activists have that scientists defend animal research because they are concerned about protecting their careers and making tons of money (as I roll on the floor laughing). Still, Bickerton ended on a high note with a perfect sound bite quote. “It’s only by winning the public over to science that we can be optimistic about the future of science in the UK.” I can’t argue with that.

During Bickerton’s address, the final speaker of the event arrived, having been held up at a prior event. As usual, though, Dr. Evan Harris—Oxford’s Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament—did not disappoint, opening with a Woody Allen joke and continuing on into what I decided was the most interesting speech of the night. He spoke of the need to balance freedom of expression with the need to make sure the science happens. As he challenged what I would agree is a fairly harsh injunction that Oxford is currently seeking against its animal rights protesters, Andrew McMichael and Ken Fleming were visibly upset. Still he continued, saying that we can’t “give The Establishment too much.” After describing what he presented as the political parties’ fairly dismal records on supporting animal research, he discussed a few of his own proposals. He stated that every press release coming from the Department of Health should clearly state what animal research was used to make the currently publicized medical advance possible. More controversially, he also described a current proposal to require drug containers to state whether animal research was used to develop that medicine. Although the pharmaceutical industry is very strongly against this proposal, Harris believes it’s important to counteract the constant exposure we have to “not tested on animals” labels. Even if people then choose not to take the medicines, this would only be them exercising their right to informed consent. Plus, this puts the onus on the animal rights protesters to decide how dedicated they really are to their cause.

So, this guy takes on “The Establishment” and the pharmaceutical industry while also fighting for science in the face of animal rights protesters. Not bad. I’d sure as hell vote for him if I were eligible to.

After Harris spoke, the meeting was then opened up to Q&A from the floor. The ensuing discussion was usually congenial, although sometimes hostile, as people spoke anywhere from fully in support of animal research, to one person who was completely against, with everyone else somewhere in between. Despite these differences, almost everyone seemed to agree that animal research was important and deserved our open support in the face of constant action by animal rights protesters. I stood up and addressed my concerns about Pro-Test too closely confusing science with industry. I received a satisfactory response from Christopher Bickerton, who stated that Pro-Test did differentiate between science and capitalism and that it was not trying to comment on capitalism by purchasing the GlaxoSmithKline shares.

After the events of the evening, I was able to return to my own research in the lab (yes, it’s sad but true that being in the lab until around midnight has become an increasingly common phenomenon) much better informed about animal research and its diverse contingency of backers and feeling fairly optimistic about the future of science in the UK. Now, if only we could follow this example back in the US, maybe we could better fend off the incursion of intelligent design and creationism into our classrooms or end the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. If not, then it’s hard for me to be so optimistic about science in the US.

May 25, 2006

One Step Closer to Fusion Power

The goals of ITER are ambitious. The project aims "demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power for peaceful purposes" by building the first fusion reactor "to produce more power than it consumes." As I've discussed before, while fusion holds great promise, the obstacles it faces are daunting.

Wednesday's Guardian describes the project and its potential role in helping society curb its carbon dioxide emissions:
There is a deafening, unearthly howl as if a jumbo jet was firing up its engines in the Albert Hall. On the screen in the control room a ghostly pinkish glow whips round the edges of the inside of the nuclear reactor. At its core it is 10 times hotter than the centre of the sun.

This, according to some physicists, is the solution to the energy crisis - a future with cheap, reliable, safe and nearly waste-free power. Today, after years of false starts and political wrangling dating from the cold war, they will get their chance to make that dream a reality. A €10bn (£7bn) project, called Iter, to build a prototype nuclear fusion reactor will be signed off in Brussels by the EU, Japan, China, South Korea, India and the US.

The prospect of virtually limitless energy is not merely science fiction. The haunting, screaming growl of matter being smashed together at unimaginably high speed is a daily occurrence at Jet in Oxfordshire, an existing experimental fusion reactor. Jet is by far the biggest of the world's 28 fusion reactors. It is the work of scientists here that has paved the way for the much bigger Iter, which, once the project is ratified in December, will be built in Cadarache in southern France.

Its advocates say nuclear fusion is the most promising long-term solution to the energy crisis, offering the possibility of abundant power from cheap fuel with no greenhouse gases and low levels of radioactive waste. But critics say the government is gambling huge sums of money - 44% of the UK's research and development budget for energy - on a long shot with no guarantee of ever producing useful energy.

The fusion reactor works by using a powerful magnetic field to concentrate the incredibly hot plasma where the reaction occurs. Monday's Nature News describes the perils of this approach as well as a potential solution:
Part of the problem with building a reactor is that the fusing hydrogen gas, called plasma, becomes so hot that it will melt the walls of any machine. The preferred solution is to suspend the plasma in a donut-shaped magnetic field. This field is designed to keep the hot gas away from the walls of the machine, and to squeeze the plasma tightly to increase the chance of atoms colliding.

But as the magnetic donut squeezes, the pressurised plasma becomes more likely to burst out, says Todd Evans, a physicist at General Atomics in San Diego, California. "Think of squeezing a balloon full of water," he says. "The harder you squeeze, the more the balloon bulges out through your fingers."

Eventually the plasma will burst through the field's weakest point. In ITER, a single such burst could release enough power to briefly light one million 100 W lightbulbs, corroding key reactor parts.

Until now, reactor designers have lived with these discharges, but Evans and his team found a way around the problem. The group modified the DIII-D tokamak reactor at General Atomics so as to introduce chaotic static into the magnetic field around the plasma.

This weakens the field just enough to let a little bit of plasma leak out through the bottom, relieving some of the pressure in the system and preventing it from bursting. "It's kind of a beautiful concept," Evans says.

In light of these findings, scientists are now pushing ITER to incorporate this controlled leakage into the design of its fusion reactor, but they may face an uphill battle, as reported in today's edition of Nature (subscription required):
he idea, which has been published in Nature Physics, could help ITER to succeed more quickly. But it comes at a cost: the technique would probably require expensive superconducting coils to be placed near or inside the containment vessel, where space is limited and punishing radiation wears out equipment quickly.

ITER researchers are now mulling over how to work such a breakthrough into the design, which originated more than 20 years ago and has already been through several iterations. The change will have to wind its way through several review committees before receiving final sign-off by designers in the countries funding it: the United States, the European Union, Japan, the Russian Federation, India, China and South Korea. It will also compete with other ideas in the field that could help prevent violent disruptions in the machine or extend the time it can hold fusing plasmas.

Trying to get scientists and engineers to decide which changes to include in the final design and which to save for 'upgrades' isn't going to be easy, says Ned Sauthoff, a physicist at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey and head of ITER's US team. "ITER is not just a physics experiment, it's also an experiment in large-scale project management."

The final design should be released within the next couple of years, and it should be interesting for a variety of reasons, including to see whether these new findings are taken into account.

Another Year Without Funding Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The one year anniversary of the passage of HR 810 in the House of Representatives has now come and gone without the Senate bringing the measure to a vote. The anticipated announcement of a vote by Majority Leader Bill Frist still hasn't materialized.

Sean Tipton, President of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research lays out what's at stake:
Many things have happened in the past year, since the House passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act:

-- 1,000 bills were introduced;

-- 465 of them passed in the Senate; and

-- 124 bills were presented to the President of the United States.

However, while the Senate was considering those 1,000 bills, passing 465 of them, and sending 124 to the White House:

-- 1.4 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer;

-- 60,000 Americans were diagnosed with Parkinson's;

-- 11,000 Americans suffered spinal cord injuries; and

-- 1.5 million adults were diagnosed with diabetes.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid also describes his efforts to bring the legislation to the floor:
Over the past year, I have repeatedly asked the Senate Majority Leader to find time to consider this bill, which a bipartisan majority of Senators support. My requests for action have been met by delay and inaction.

As Nancy Reagan stated it in a letter to Senator Hatch dated May 1, 2006, "For those who are waiting every day for scientific progress to help their loved ones, the wait for United States Senate action has been very difficult and hard to comprehend."

Few issues are as important to the American people as legislation that could provide medical breakthroughs that would benefit hundreds of millions of people suffering from illnesses like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, and ALS. We can do better for the 100 million Americans counting on the promise of this ground breaking research. It is time for the Republican leadership to stop delaying and denying hope and to take up and pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810) immediately.

Let the delays end and the voting begin!

Like Clockwork

Afarensis points his readers to a new study that’s billed to debunk “popular belief” by demonstrating the existence of a second clock in the brain, outside of the central one in the suprachiasmatic nucleus. As Bora Zivkovic points out on his blog Circadiana, this isn’t really anything that new, and the study seems to have been over hyped in its press release.

In fact, it’s well-known that the body hosts a multitude of individual clocks that are coordinated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus. I even wrote about this topic last April in The Battalion, Texas A&M University’s student newspaper:
David Earnest, associate professor of medical neurobiology, said that if left alone, internal clocks take on their own rhythm - closer to 25 hours in humans.

Although something can be said for walking to the beat of your own drum, an incorrectly set clock can lead to a host of health problems.

Earnest said that, in addition to the central clock, mammals have local clocks operating throughout the body. The role of the central clock is to synchronize these other clocks. In fact, the undesirable symptoms of jet lag, ranging from decreased productivity to an increased risk of infection, occur when these various internal clocks do not catch up to the new time zone at the same speed.

In northern areas, many people become depressed during the exceptionally dark winters. This condition called seasonal affective disorder is often treated with phototherapy - exposing patients to high-intensity light at a regular time each day.

Interestingly, this led to a discussion on why we need these internal clocks at all, since they can cause so much trouble:
"Circadian rhythms allow preparation in advance for predictable changes in the environment," Earnest said. "(For example,) if you're an animal living in the wild and you're nocturnal, you need to have the various neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate motor activity ready to roll in advance of it becoming nighttime."

The article overall focuses more on what were then recent findings regarding how the body resets its internal clocks. The entire article can be found here, and I’d encourage you to check it out. Enjoy!

May 24, 2006

Are You Cool, Man?

If you know what I'm talking about, and if you are in fact "cool", then you might also be interested in the findings presented Tuesday by Dr. Donald Tashkin and his coauthors at an American Thoracic Society meeting in San Diego. In short, smoking marijuana does not cause lung cancer:
The smoke from burning marijuana leaves contains several known carcinogens and the tar it creates contains 50 percent more of some of the chemicals linked to lung cancer than tobacco smoke. A marijuana cigarette also deposits four times as much of that tar as an equivalent tobacco one. Scientists were therefore surprised to learn that a study of more than 2,000 people found no increase in the risk of developing lung cancer for marijuana smokers....

...The researchers interviewed 611 lung cancer patients and 1,040 healthy controls as well as 601 patients with cancer in the head or neck region under the age of 60 to create the statistical analysis. They found that 80 percent of those with lung cancer and 70 percent of those with other cancers had smoked tobacco while only roughly half of both groups had smoked marijuana. The more tobacco a person smoked, the greater the risk of developing cancer, as other studies have shown.

But after controlling for tobacco, alcohol and other drug use as well as matching patients and controls by age, gender and neighborhood, marijuana did not seem to have an effect, despite its unhealthy aspects.

On a side note, if I ever call a joint a "marijuana cigarette", I promise I will officially put to rest any illusions I ever had about being cool.

In explaining his results, though, Tashkin demonstrates a surprising familiarity with the... um... experimental technique:
"Marijuana is packed more loosely than tobacco, so there's less filtration through the rod of the cigarette, so more particles will be inhaled," Tashkin says. "And marijuana smokers typically smoke differently than tobacco smokers; they hold their breath about four times longer allowing more time for extra fine particles to deposit in the lungs."

I’ll admit that I was usually fairly skeptical on all of the many occasions when a markedly stoned person “explained” to me that marijuana’s really not bad for you at all. “Trust me… man… I read all about it somewhere.” It never really seemed particularly scientific.

It looks the potheads might have been right after all. Taking the next obvious step, then, this gives us another opportunity to ask on what science exactly are the US’s crazy drug laws based? As we spend billions of dollars a year on a misguided war on drugs, it’s a question that deserves quite a bit of consideration. To get an idea of just how extensive the problem really is, check out this recent post from The Agitator (via Dispatches from the Culture Wars). And, while medical marijuana is a separate area that still needs much more research, the legal response from the federal government there has so far been irrational, at best. Clearly, drug policy is another area where we would all benefit from lawmakers basing their decisions to a greater extent on sound science.

But, that’s not why we’re here. This post is about good news, and it deserves some celebration. So, let’s all just sit back, relax, and enjoy a nice cancer-free smoke….

Tangled Bank #54 at Science and Politics

Over at Science and Politics, Bora Zivkovic has posted the latest edition of the Tangled Bank, the place to go to see what people are writing about in the science blogosphere. The entries appear in the order they were received, and you should all be shocked to find that mine is in fact NOT one of the last ones, as I uncharacteristically submitted something before the last minute this time. In addition, congratulations are in order as Bora announces that he has been invited to join Seed magazine's very cool ScienceBlogs site. He will keep his current blog running, though, focusing now just on the political side of things.

May 23, 2006

Wired Magazine Takes On "The Man"

On Monday, Wired Magazine released documents detailing AT&T's involvement in the National Security Agency's recent warrantless domestic surveillance scandal. The documents give whistle-blower Mark Klein's description of the technical aspects of how the questionable wiretapping operation was carried out. With a lawsuit currently pending against AT&T, the documents remain sealed, but Wired obained the documents from an anonymous source:
In 2003 AT&T built "secret rooms" hidden deep in the bowels of its central offices in various cities, housing computer gear for a government spy operation which taps into the company's popular WorldNet service and the entire internet. These installations enable the government to look at every individual message on the internet and analyze exactly what people are doing. Documents showing the hardwire installation in San Francisco suggest that there are similar locations being installed in numerous other cities.

The physical arrangement, the timing of its construction, the government-imposed secrecy surrounding it and other factors all strongly suggest that its origins are rooted in the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness (TIA) program which brought forth vigorous protests from defenders of constitutionally protected civil liberties [in 2003]....

...In San Francisco the "secret room" is Room 641A at 611 Folsom Street, the site of a large SBC phone building, three floors of which are occupied by AT&T. High-speed fiber-optic circuits come in on the 8th floor and run down to the 7th floor where they connect to routers for AT&T's WorldNet service, part of the latter's vital "Common Backbone." In order to snoop on these circuits, a special cabinet was installed and cabled to the "secret room" on the 6th floor to monitor the information going through the circuits. (The location code of the cabinet is 070177.04, which denotes the 7th floor, aisle 177 and bay 04.) The "secret room" itself is roughly 24-by-48 feet, containing perhaps a dozen cabinets including such equipment as Sun servers and two Juniper routers, plus an industrial-size air conditioner.

The normal work force of unionized technicians in the office are forbidden to enter the "secret room," which has a special combination lock on the main door. The telltale sign of an illicit government spy operation is the fact that
only people with security clearance from the National Security Agency can enter this room. In practice this has meant that only one management-level technician works in there. Ironically, the one who set up the room was laid off in late 2003 in one of the company's endless "downsizings," but he was quickly replaced by another.

In a separate article, Wired gives its rationale for publishing the documents:
Before publishing these documents we showed them to independent security experts, who agreed they pose no significant danger to AT&T. For example, they do not reveal information that hackers might use to easily attack the company's systems.

The court's gag order is very specific in barring only the EFF, its representatives and its technical experts from discussing and disseminating this information. The court explicitly rejected AT&T's motion to include Klein in the gag order and declined AT&T's request to force the EFF to return the documents.

Given the current political and legal climate, it's not surprising that Wired is being so explicit here. Just last Sunday, for example, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that journalists could be prosecuted for releasing classified information.

Given that, I don't think I could end this post any better than Mark Klein ended his statement:
This is the infrastructure for an Orwellian police state. It must be shut down!

What Does This Administration Have Against College Degrees?

Apparently, I wasted four years of my life working on an undergraduate degree, or at least I did if I wanted to work my way into the Bush Administration. And, let's not even get started on graduate school....

From The Harvard Crimson:
A 26-year-old college dropout who carries President Bush’s breath mints and makes him peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches will follow in his boss’s footsteps this fall when he enrolls at Harvard Business School (HBS).

Though it is rare for HBS—or any other professional or graduate school—to admit a student who does not have an undergraduate degree, admissions officers made an exception for Blake Gottesman, who for four years has served as special assistant and personal aide to Bush.

Don't worry, though, he's clearly very well qualified....
In his current role, Gottesman performs a wide range of duties, from dog-sitting the president’s Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, to carrying the president’s speeches and giving him the “two-minute warning” before a speech begins.

Gottesman has declined all requests for comment on his business school admission, but White House staffers have described him as loyal, warm, and fun-loving.

Hat Tip to The Toothed Wheel

May 21, 2006

Embryonic Stem Cell Bill May Finally Receive Vote in Senate

This Wednesday, May 24th, will mark the one year anniversary of the House of Representatives’ passage of H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which sent it to the Senate for final approval. Since its passage in the House, though, the Republican leadership in the Senate has sat on it, not bring it to a vote as occasionally promised. Rumor has it, though, that the stem cell bill may finally get voted on, pending an upcoming announcement by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

H.R. 810 would end what is effectively a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and replace it with much more reasonable regulations. The current state of affairs not only causes underfunding of stem cell research but also makes it difficult for someone performing embryonic stem cell research to perform any other research involving federal funds.

Although the bill was sponsored by a Republican, Michael Castle of Delaware, 93% of Democrats supported H.R. 810 in the House vote, while 79% of Republicans opposed it. Senate Democrats currently lead the charge to bring the bill to a vote there, although doing so through a bipartisan coalition:
Democrats believe stem cell research should be a part of any health care debate, but Bush Republicans in the Senate are preparing to wrap up their “health week” having accomplished nothing and having refused to even consider such promising research. Last week, Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, and Bob Menendez called on Senate Republicans to bring House-passed stem cell legislation (H.R. 810) to the Senate for debate and not squander this opportunity to help millions of people….

…“The need to expand stem cell research in this country is as critical as ever,” said Senator Harkin. “For millions of Americans, stem cell research remains a life-or-death issue. Yet nearly a year after the House passed a bill to do just that with a strong, bipartisan majority, we are still denied a vote in the Senate. At the close of the Republicans so-called ‘health week’, we are still denied a vote. A bipartisan majority in the Senate support expanding stem cell research; Senator Frist himself said he backs it. And yet we are still denied a vote.”

“It’s time for the Senate to pass this bill,” Senator Feinstein said. “It’s time for a sensible embryonic stem cell policy that promotes research. Not one that is limited to 22 lines that are contaminated by mouse feeder cells. It’s time to unleash our researchers and encourage them to find cures. This fight is really about cures and treatments for patients. The price of inaction goes up every day.”

Embryonic stem cell research is an issue where the Democrats are clearly in line with the vast majority of Americans. A recent poll found that 72% of Americans favor “medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos,” and 70% believe the senate should bring H.R. 810 to a vote. By indefinitely delaying a vote on this bill, the Republicans are flagrantly violating the will of the American people.

There may be some good news in sight, though, as Michael Stebbins of Sex Drugs and DNA reports that Senator Frist is planning to announce a vote on H.R. 810 sometime soon:
Word on the Hill is that Senator Bill Frist will be making an announcement regarding the stem cell bills in the coming week. Apparently he is going to announce that he will allow 3 bills to come up for a vote “soon.” They will each get a separate unanimous consent vote instead of having them voted on as a package deal where Senators either vote for all 3 or none.

The first bill (HR810) is designed to lift the President’s ridiculous ban from August 2001 on the use of federal funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research. (For those of you playing the home game, this is the good guy’s bill.)

As an ongoing project, Stebbins has a counter on his site that demonstrates just how long Senator Frist has had to bring this bill to a vote. As I write this, the counter is up to 362 days, 15 hours, 33 minutes, and 11 seconds. The two other bills he mentioned above are S. 2754 (the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act) and the yet-to-be-introduced “Anti-Fetus Farm Bill”. Both bills serve as distractions from the real issue, which is the promise of embryonic stem cell research and the need to allow unrestricted federal funding. Stebbins encourages his readers to contact their senators to demand a vote on H.R. 810 and to request that they support it but not the other two bills. I’ll echo his call to action, particularly in regards to H.R. 810.

Embryonic stem cell Research has suffered greatly in the US over the last few years, and the Senate now has a chance to reverse that trend and allow the US to catch up with the rest of the world. Let’s hope our leadership doesn’t continue to pass up such an important opportunity.

Pro-Test Public Meeting this Monday

Oxford’s grassroots pro-research organization Pro-Test will be holding a town hall-style event this Monday, May 22nd, at 7:00 pm. The event will take place at the Oxford Town Hall, on St. Aldates. It promises to be an informative evening, featuring an impressive lineup of speakers:

    Director of the Medical Research Council Human Immunology Unit, Oxford University
    LibDem Science Spokesman, MP for Oxford West
    Head of Medical Science Division, University of Oxford
    Best-selling author of Fragile
    Director, Patient's Voice for Medical Research
The event is free, but Pro-Test is asking that those interested in coming please register by sending an email to Pro-Test propelled itself onto the national and international radar with its first successful march in February, and the organization is planning a second march on June 3rd.

May 19, 2006

American Innovation and Competitiveness Act Advances in Senate

On Thursday, May 18th, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation unanimously approved the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, sending it to the full Senate. The act was intoduced by Senator John Ensign (R-Nev), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness. The official press release and the full text of the bill as it was introduced can be found online, but a better breakdown of the bill comes from Inside Higher Ed:
The bill authorizes over $6 billion for NSF for the 2007 fiscal year, which is in line with the president’s budget request. The money still has to be appropriated, though, for NSF to receive it, even if the bill is passed.

The bill would also authorize the NSF to give 2,500 additional grants to be used for graduate research fellowships and for the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program, which preps doctoral science and engineering students for interdisciplinary work.

NSF would also establish a clearinghouse to share best practices from four-year institutions, industry, and government agencies with regard to professional science masters degree programs. Professional science masters programs are often interdisciplinary programs that may not require a thesis, but require internships, and training in a non-science field, such as business, or communications.

In prior hearings, senators and witnesses suggested that such programs will help to get more minority students into graduate level science. Under the bill, grants would be available for professional science masters pilot programs at four-year institutions.

The legislation would also have the National Institute of Standards and Technology set aside at least 8 percent of its annual budget for “high-risk, high reward research” that might be “too novel or spans too diverse a range of disciplines to fare well in the traditional peer review process,” according the bill. Eighty percent of that money would be in the form of competitive grants.

On his site Sex Drugs and DNA, Michael Stebbins reports that Senator John McCain introduced an amendment to the bill intended to increase scientific openness. Stebbins has provided the full text of the amendment on his site:
Within 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in consultation with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, shall develop and issue an overarching set of principles for the communication of scientific information by government scientists, policy makers, and managers to the public. The principles shall encourage the open exchange of data and results of research by Federal agency scientists.

According to Stebbins, the amendment is a shot at President Bush:
These principles are intended to stop the President and his cronies from manipulating science. Even Republicans are sickened by the Presiden’t activities. The good news is that Republicans are keen to pass this legislation, which was introduced by Senator Ensign of Nevada, so unless they make a stink about the amendment, the administration will be forced to do the right thing…maybe.

The adminstration has hitherto been pretty adept at finding ways to not do the right thing in terms of science, so that's a tall order for any piece of legislation. It'll definitely be worth following.

Get Rich Quick! (And Stop Global Warming in the Process)

Despite all of the rhetoric, a recently published series of studies demonstrates that the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions probably won’t be very harsh, and there might even be a net economic benefit to such cuts. The studies, published in a special issue of The Energy Journal under the umbrella of the Innovation Modeling Comparison Project, analyze various models that explore the economics of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, taking into account the effects of policies that induce technological change. You can access the entire special issue for free via the University of Cambridge.

This week’s issue of Nature features a news story (subscription required) that serves as a basic overview of the project and a good starting point for exploring it further:
Transforming the world's energy industry to stop the flood of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere might actually be quite cheap.

Figures of tens of trillions of dollars are often cited, and used to question whether measures such as the Kyoto Protocol, which attempts to limit carbon emissions, are too expensive. But according to a suite of economic models released late last month, the costs of stabilizing carbon dioxide levels could be tiny — equivalent to setting back the growth of global GDP (gross domestic product) by less than 1% over 100 years; global GDP generally grows 2–3% each year. In some cases, the right policies for limiting carbon emissions could even create a surprising win–win situation, leading to the stabilization of greenhouse gases and an increase in global wealth.

It is a controversial conclusion with which not everyone agrees, but which the modellers say should be food for thought for policy-makers. "If we prepare properly and acknowledge that carbon will be constrained, it will be relatively cheap," says Michael Grubb, a climate-policy expert at Imperial College London. "But only if we do the right things."…

…The results are striking. Nine of the models predict that stabilizing carbon dioxide levels at 450 parts per million, widely seen as the most ambitious target worth discussing, would set back global GDP by less than 0.5% or so by 2100 (the other two produced figures of 2.1% and 6.2%). In each scenario, the regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions persuades the private sector to shift investment into low-carbon technologies, which then become competitive with traditional energy sources.

In some cases, this shift in investment stimulates growth and actually boosts overall wealth. At least, that's the conclusion of two of the models — one developed at the University of Cambridge, UK, and the other at the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, a centre for sustainable-development research in Italy. These models suggest that stabilization policies would give an added boost to global GDP of up to 1.7% over 100 years. They assume such climate policies will bring about side benefits, such as increased investment in new technologies.

Although the results sound convincing, I hope to go through the findings myself to get a better idea of how compelling they really are. The article in Nature already addresses some of the naysayers coming from an economics perspective, but I imagine that the harshest critics will be those from the industries that have fought so consistently against change and regulation (and in effect innovation). Although some models predict economic benefits to come from decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, major shifts in energy usage and production threaten the current system that has benefited the current dinosaurs so well.

In addition to the basic findings in economics, the authors of the introductory paper to the series offer their own policy recommendations based on the project's findings. In short, they stress the necessity of both regulation from government and research-driven technology innovations from industry. An optimal strategy from a governmental perspective, then, would involve both emissions caps and policies that stimulate the desired types of research:
Taken as a whole, the analyses give good grounds for believing that the atmosphere can be stabilized (or brought close to stabilization), at or significantly below a doubling of CO2-equivalent concentrations (below 500ppm CO2) at long-term macroeconomic costs that seem relatively modest—unlikely to exceed one year’s foregone economic growth. However, this broad figure over a century hides many distributional impacts, across sectors, across countries and across generations. In particular, stabilization may require big changes in investment patterns in the short run, which would obviously provoke resistance to the implementation of effective climate policies. Whether or not the costs are actually small, will be a function of policy, and in particular, whether or not the policies adopted send the right signals and get the right mix of investment in R&D at one end, diffusion at the other—and of no lesser importance—all that lies between….

…The policy implications are thus far more subtle than choosing between ‘technology led’ versus ‘cap-and-trade’ led approaches. Even with a strong role for ITC, future rounds of the Kyoto Protocol which duplicate the structure of sequential 5-year limits, without any clear and credible signals about the longer term evolution of the system, are unlikely to deliver the depth of innovation and adjustment to infrastructural investments required to minimize long-term costs. On the other hand, a purely supply-driven R&D strategy may generate ideas but not technology-based industries with the capacity to solve the problem, and with no signal at all to redirect ongoing investment and promote prior adjustment of infrastructure appropriate to a carbon constrained world. Thus both R&D, and carbon cap/pricing, appear necessary but in isolation insufficient instruments to deliver stabilization at low costs. What really matters may be combinations of these policies and all that lies between—together with the critical role of framing expectations that really influence the scale and direction of corporate investment in low-carbon knowledge, in learning-by-doing in the nascent technologies and industries, and in the infrastructure appropriate to low-carbon economies.

The idea that curbing greenhouse gas emissions won’t be disastrous for the economy isn’t a new one, and I’ve even written about it before. Still, it is important in these types of discussions not to lose site of the big picture. The most immediate goal needs to be halting global warming, by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, something that will require action that is both decisive and soon. If the economy benefits, that’s an added bonus, but if climate change is allowed to spin out of control, these matters of money will begin to appear increasingly trivial.

May 17, 2006

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the BBC the Other Day…

…Or, at least it did to various people named Guy. On May 8th, Guy Kewney—who runs the technology website–was waiting to be interviewed by the BBC about a recent ruling in the Apple v. Apple case when he saw himself, or rather not himself, being introduced on the TV. The man on TV was actually Guy Goma, who had been mistaken by the BBC for Kewney. The reason for the mix-up was probably a combination of the BBC’s rush to get Kewney on the air and a communication barrier due to Goma having only recently learned English after moving to London from the Congo.

Goma—who was visibly surprised by the questions being hurled at him, as seen in the video–was actually at the BBC to interview for, ironically enough, an IT job. Regardless, his composure was impressive, and he later told reporters that he would be “happy to speak about any situation” in the future. It was a pretty funny incident, but in the end it wasn’t all that interesting.

The same can’t be said for the aftermath, though, which turned out to be very telling. Not surprisingly, Kewney was fairly upset by what happened. He had just missed out on an appearance on national television, and anyone who watched the segment probably thought he really didn’t know very much about the Apple case. Although he has definitely earned the right to vent, some of his reaction on his blog comes off as a little… well… you judge for yourself:
There were several surprising things about my interview. We'll ignore the fact that I wasn't giving it, and had not given it. We'll even gloss over the fact that, judging by my performance, English wasn't my first language, and that I didn't seem to know much about Apple Computer, online music, or the Beatles. People have accused me of all those things, at various stages of my career.

But let's admit it: of all the things you can say about me, one word that really has to be deleted from the list is this one: "Black." We're talking biometrics, here. We're talking about "twins separated at birth, only their mother could tell them apart"... NOT!

I'm not black. I'm not black on a startling scale; I'm fair-haired, blue-eyed, prominent-nosed, and with the sort of pale skin that makes my dermatologist wince each time I complain about an itchy mole. I'm a walking candidate for chronic sunburn damage. I’m really, really not black.

But the guy on screen - sorry, the "Guy Kewney" live, on screen, definitely was. Black. Also, he spoke with a French-sounding accent, and he seemed as baffled as I felt. At first, he seemed puzzled that anybody might imagine that the lawsuit had consequences, and suggested that people would still be able to download music from Internet cafes. But what about Apple? "I don't know. I’m not at all sure what I'm doing here," he admitted sadly, as they finally twigged that something was going badly wrong, and hustled him off the set.

Kewney focuses extensively on one aspect of Goma that doesn’t seem particularly relevant here. I think the comments are a bit off-color, but I’m still inclined to give Kewney the benefit of the doubt here anyway and chalk it all up to a disastrous failed attempt at humor.

The other issue making things interesting here also appears to involve a bit of latent racism. For a reason that’s still unclear to me, all of the early news reports described the “fake” Guy Kewney as a cab driver. Apparently, the media believes that driving a taxi is a perfectly reasonable occupation for someone who’s foreign (specifically a black African) and speaks with a heavy accent. There’s no way he could have been an IT specialist with a business degree. Right? That’s what one would have gathered reading the media coverage, anyway.

The fact that all of the media outlets repeated the same nonsense, and didn’t realize the error until a week after the event happened, is somewhat disturbing. Once again, it seems that the media isn’t really doing its homework all that well.

Tony Blair on Animal Rights Protesters

This week's Sunday Telegraph featured an opinion piece by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in favor of The People's Petition, which supports animal research in the UK:
Prime ministers don't often sign public petitions. After all, they usually either criticise the Government or demand priority treatment for a specific cause.

So announcing that I am to add my name to the on-line petition in support of animal testing when necessary is something of a break with tradition - and a sign of just how important I believe it is that as many people as possible stand up against the tiny group of extremists threatening medical research and advances in this country....

...This week underlined why the time is right for such a show of public support. The appalling details of the campaign of intimidation - which include grave-robbing - show the depths to which the animal extremists are prepared to stoop. The letter-writing campaign just launched against GlaxoSmithKline shareholders shows why we must support and protect individuals and companies engaged in life-saving medical research.

It is research which has helped hundreds of millions of people through vaccines to eradicate mass killers such as smallpox and medicines and procedures to treat incurable conditions like heart complaints. Research, too, which holds out the hope in tandem with other scientific advances such as genetic modification of extraordinary breakthroughs in treating and preventing diseases as varied as cancer, muscular dystrophy and Alzheimer's....

...Britain, of course, has a proud history of animal welfare and protection. We should be more assertive about one of the very toughest licensing and control regimes in the world which is being tightened continually as new replacement procedures become available. Testing on great apes including chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans is banned here. In 1998 this Government outlawed testing of cosmetics on animals.

The result is that experiments involving animals are subject to the tightest restrictions and monitoring. No animal procedures are allowed unless it can be demonstrated to an independent panel that the research is essential, that there is no realistic alternative and that any suffering is kept to an absolute minimum.

The article feels a little too much like a ploy to please his supporters in the pharmaceutical industry, but as animal rights activists continue to intimidate animal researchers in the UK, Blair's message is one that needs to be heard. For more background on the issue, check out this, this, this, and this.

May 16, 2006

House Democrats Push for Increased NASA Funding

Via NASA Watch comes a press release about the Democrats’ latest push to increase funding at NASA:
In a letter this week to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice, and Commerce, Science Committee Democratic leaders urged appropriators to increase NASA’s FY07 funding level as recommended in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005.

Without such augmentation, Democrats cautioned that NASA’s science and aeronautics programs - as well as other important agency R&D efforts - are at risk.

As basic science at NASA stands to suffer under the new budget constraints, these recommendations couldn’t be timelier. From the letter:
Unfortunately, the Administration has failed to request funding for NASA in either FY 2006 or FY 2007 commensurate with what it has estimated would be needed. Thus, the FY 2007 budget request for NASA is more than a billion dollars less than the Administration and Congress (as reflected in the Authorization Act of 2005) have believed is required to undertake the new exploration initiative while maintaining robust and healthy science and aeronautics programs. We have been consistent in our stated position that we support the goals of the exploration initiative, but that we are not prepared to support an implementation approach for that initiative that is predicated on the cannibalization of NASA's other important missions.

In our view, NASA's FY 2007 budget request makes unacceptable cuts to NASA's science and aeronautics programs, and it is inconsistent with the stated goals of the Administration's American Competitiveness Initiative. We believe that if those cuts are not reversed, long-term damage will be done to important national R&D capabilities. Moreover, an exploration initiative that is premised on the curtailment or diminution of other core NASA missions is not likely to prove politically sustainable over the long run.

It is clear that you face a significant challenge in attempting to construct a viable NASA appropriations plan within today's fiscally constrained environment. We are writing to you to offer our recommendations for addressing NASA's FY 2007 budget request based on the approach taken in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 as well as on information obtained from this year's Science Committee hearing record.

Fundamentally, we believe that it is important for Congress to provide an overall funding level for NASA as close as possible to the $17.8 billion level recommended in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. Otherwise, as is demonstrated by NASA's FY 2007 budget request, ill-advised and damaging cuts to NASA's science and aeronautics programs, as well as to important long-term exploration research and technology efforts are inevitable.

So, under Republican leadership NASA isn’t getting what it needs, and that’s not even as bad as what it is getting that it doesn’t need. Yikes!

The Simpsons Takes on Evolution

If, like me, you weren’t able to see The Simpsons Sunday night, you can view most of the episode here (hat tip to Pharyngula). In brief, Ned Flanders convinces Reverend Lovejoy to intimidate Principal Skinner into “teaching the controversy” at Springfield Elementary. Lisa Simpson objects, but her activism fires when the city of Springfield passes a law banning the teaching of evolution. When Lisa is caught leading an underground resistance movement, she finds herself on trial for supporting the teaching of evolution.

Although I grew up on it, I haven’t really watched much of The Simpsons in recent years. Lately, this has been due mostly to my living overseas and not watching much television anyway. Before then, though, I think it was clear that the show had lost quite a bit of its earlier magic. Despite this, I thought this episode was hilarious and fairly clever, capturing many of the subtleties of the evolution/creationism debate—from slick creationist ploys to boring scientists who tend to shoot themselves in the foot.

Here’s my favorite quote:
Ned Flanders: We want you to teach alternative theories to Darwinian evolution.

Principal Skinner: You mean Lamarckian evolution?

Reverend Lovejoy: No! The Adam and Eve one!

Note: Not to be outdone, Family Guy gave its take on the issue as well.

May 15, 2006

Is Science Overrated?

In a recent post at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers explores the question of whether science is overrated. Although it’s a response to a more or less incoherent rant on another site, Myers makes several important points.

In response to the charge that science is more highly valued than the liberal arts, he writes:
Like I said, I'm at a liberal arts university—I spend my advising sessions telling pre-meds that they really ought to go take courses in poetry, music, and drama. (Seriously, it's practically my stereotypical advising meeting. Really smart, hot-shot student comes in with her carefully worked out plan to graduate in 3 years by mainlining lab courses every term; I try to explain that she shouldn't do that, that we really, truly want her to leave the science building now and then and throw a pot or read a poem.) I don't know any scientists who don't think that there's more to being a well-rounded person than knowing chemistry or physics or biology.

I'm afraid the problem actually goes the opposite way. There are a lot of non-scientists who think you can be a well-rounded person without ever studying any math or science at all. Is there any curriculum at any serious university in this country in which you can graduate without taking some courses in writing or literature or art or a foreign language? No. Yet there are plenty in which math and science are left to those weirdo science majors.

A trend I noticed when I was at Texas A&M University, for example, was that even when non-science majors were required to take science courses, they rarely took classes in the fundamental sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) because the alternatives were considered “easier”. Although I would never argue that geology and oceanography, two of the most popular alternatives at A&M, aren’t important, I believe one would be hard-pressed to argue that a student wouldn’t benefit more from the more basic knowledge gained in an introductory course in physics, chemistry, or biology. Regardless, one can’t gain a full understanding of other scientific fields without understanding the basic physical, chemical, and biological concepts that underlie the complex phenomena in those fields. In terms of ability to help one understand the world around him or her, surely the fundamental sciences are at the very least on par with the general liberal arts requirements—language, history, philosophy, political science, etc.—and could, in some ways, be considered more even powerful. A comprehensive education needs a strong foundation in the sciences and the arts, and currently the sciences seem to be underrepresented, not the other way around.

Possibly serving as an example of the need for more and better science education is this statement from the anti-science rant:
The reason for [science’s position of prestige in our society] is because of Science can be "applied." That's the reason. Science has not been cultivated in this country out of a love of learning. Its primary job is to make Stealth Bombers and Nuclear Weapons. This accounts for its funding. (By the way, this is perhaps a good time to mention that I have no figures on this and have done no research, so if I'm wrong, please do let me know.)

Putting aside the obvious lack of a scientific approach in forming this conclusion, this quote demonstrates a general lack of understanding of and familiarity with the sciences. It’s also a tired old argument that I’ve heard several times before. Saying that the “primary job” of science is to make military equipment makes no more sense than arguing that the purpose of English literature is to produce Stephen King novels or the purpose of religion is to consolidate power in the hands of a few (well, OK, there might be some truth in that last one…).

Fundamentally, the quote also confuses science with its applications, something that happens increasingly frequently as the applications of scientific discoveries become more prominent in society, but scientific education has not advanced enough for the general public to understand the relationship and, more importantly, the differences between science and technology. With that said, though, this confusion is probably one of the largest threats to science as a whole, and one that receives a relatively small amount of attention. As scientists constantly bow to the pressure to stress the potential applications of their work in grants and papers, though, they are just as guilty as anyone else of exacerbating this problem.

The question of whether science is actually overrated, though, is a valid one on which there should be an open discussion in any society, especially within a free democracy. Here’s P.Z. Myers’ initial reaction to the idea that science could be overrated and that “it's not the end of the world that fewer and fewer American students are going into the sciences”:
I read that first bit, and you may be shocked to learn that I'm willing to agree. There are some really good arguments to support the position. Science is hard, and it's true that the majority of people aren't going to be able to grasp it. We're oversubscribed and overextended right now, too: more students are going through the science mill than can ever acquire jobs doing science. If every PI is taking on one new graduate student and one new postdoc every year over a career spanning 30-40 years…well, that's a situation that is rather ruthlessly Malthusian. It is definitely not a practical career, either—the excessively long training period and relatively low salaries mean that, in a purely economic sense, it would be more profitable to plunge into a blue-collar job straight out of high school. It's also not as if science is the only rewarding career of value out there, and no other work can possibly be as satisfying or productive. My own kids are all going on into non-science careers, and I say, good for them.

Whether you agree or not, it’s definitely something to consider.

May 12, 2006

States Continue to Take Stem Cell Research into Their Own Hands

As the federal government continues to hold on to a restrictive embryonic stem cell research funding scheme—one that prevents the use of federal funds for any research associated with new embryonic stem cell lines—others are having to take up the slack. Chris Gabrieli, a Democrat campaigning to become governor of Massachusetts, laid out his vision for the role of his state in funding the research. The plan calls for $1 billion in research funding (about half for work on stem cells) and the creation of a post for a science and technology director. Massachusetts currently has a law on the books that allows embryonic stem cell research (passed in 2005 over the veto of Republican governor Mitt Romney) but does not provide any funding.

When it comes to actually funding embryonic stem cell research, nobody can hold a candle to California. Despite the efforts of other states, none have been able to match the funding commitment approved by California voters in 2004. Bolstering the state’s efforts, UC San Francisco received $16 million this week from billionaire Ray Dolby for its Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a new research center that will feature embryonic stem cell research currently unfundable by federal sources.

Although a consistent and comprehensive national funding policy on embryonic stem cell research would be preferable to the more scattered efforts we see today, current restrictive regulations continue to preclude this possibility. As individual donors and voters continue to exert an expanding influence on specific science policy issues, the need for a truly scientifically literate public becomes increasingly clear. Improving science education should form the foundation of any improvements, but other efforts can help, including the push for open access literature. In the meantime, the push for the end of the embryonic stem cell funding ban should continue, and we shouldn’t settle for less acceptable solutions.

Better Late Than Never

Thursday's edition of the Guardian reported on a story that came out over a week earlier in The Washington Post. I published lengthy post on the issue last week as well. The issue at hand is the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006--introduced by Senators Cornyn and Lieberman--which would require open public access, within six months of publication, to articles on scientific work supported by any of the eleven largest US government funders of research, including NASA and the Department of Health and Human Services (under which the NIH falls). The Guardian article elaborates a bit on the state of open access in the UK:
The proposed new law comes after an independent report for the European commission last month recommended that research funded by European taxpayers should also be available free on the web. In the UK, meanwhile, public funders of research are still considering whether to recommend so-called "open access" to research, despite support for the idea from a committee of MPs. Charitable funders such as the Wellcome Trust have already come out in favour....

...Peter Willis, Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the science and technology select committee, said the proposed US law should serve as a warning to the government this side of the Atlantic that the current model needs to be changed. "This is yet another example of the dissemination of research moving into the 21st century and the UK must not be left behind," he said. "To cling on to what are basically 19th-century principles of publishing research seems to me a rather bizarre concept in the 21st century."

May 11, 2006

Fighting HIV/AIDS on the Home Front

A recently discovered cluster of HIV cases in the small British town could serve as a poignant reminder that HIV/AIDS is everyone’s concern and not just something that affects people on the other side of the world. In St. Ives, a seaside resort of about 11,000 people on the southwestern tip of England, doctors have diagnosed about ten new cases of HIV in the last month, an alarming number considering that this outbreak involves roughly 0.1% of the population there, especially in light of the fact that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the UK in general is 0.1%.

Although much of the coverage has focused on this specific incident, others have focused on the larger picture, placing these recent events within the scope of the worldwide AIDS pandemic. One of these programs was on the UK’s Channel Four News. On the program’s webpage there’s a link to the video news report, which concludes with an informative interview with Mandisa Mbali, a South African Rhodes Scholar currently studying at Oxford University and the secretary of the university’s chapter of the Stop AIDS Society. She speaks of a growing complacency toward HIV/AIDS and the need for more public awareness campaigns that focus on preventing high risk behaviors. The report also explores the interesting ethical question of how one balances patient rights and public awareness in the midst of such an outbreak.

As the number of people living with HIV continues to grow worldwide, including in the UK and the US, it’s important to remember that HIV/AIDS is everyone’s problem, whether we’re addressing the pandemic at home or abroad.

May 10, 2006

Grand Rounds and the Tangled Bank

The newest versions of the blog carnivals Grand Rounds and the Tangled Bank are now up. Issue 33 of volume 2 of the medically-themed weekly Grand Rounds went up yesterday at Aetiology, and it covers pretty much every aspect of medicine you could imagine, from basic research to current controversies. For those interested in the general science blogosphere, though, issue 53 of the biweekly Tangled Bank went up early this morning on Science Notes. The theme? Climbing a tree.

May 9, 2006

Nature Versus Nurturing the Death Penalty

In a strongly-worded editorial and an accompanying news special report (subscription required), last Thursday’s Nature magazine challenged the humaneness of lethal injections and advocated for continued abstention by the medical community to put an end to the death penalty once and for all.

The special report lays out the issue:
Do no harm. Nearly all US MDs and PhDs recite this three-word oath instinctively when asked why they object to helping with executions. "It violates our ethical oath and erodes public trust," says Priscilla Ray, head of ethics at the American Medical Association (AMA), which prohibits members from participating in executions. Even helping to design a more humane protocol would disregard the AMA code, Ray says. "Formulating a way to kill somebody would violate the spirit of the policy."

As a result of that stance, lethal injections — the dominant method of execution in the United States — are generally carried out by technicians without scientific or medical training, and the protocol does not seem to have been reviewed in 30 years. Typically, prisoners are injected with three drugs in sequence meant to knock out, paralyze and then kill. But many experts are concerned that because of that lack of training, the first drug does not always knock the condemned out properly, leaving him or her paralyzed but excruciatingly conscious as the lungs stop moving, and burning potassium chloride races towards the heart.

The death penalty has quite a bit going against it, from charges of unequal application to different demographics to the sometimes realized nightmare of killing an innocent person. The challenges at hand, though, focus on the suitability of what was supposed to be a more humane alternative to the electric chair: the lethal injection.

One of the most damning indictments of lethal injections as a means of capital punishment came from a 2005 article in The Lancet, which found that 43% of inmates undergoing lethal injection may be conscious when the fatal and excruciatingly painful dose of potassium chloride is delivered, due to insufficient doses of the anesthetic sodium thiopental. The results of the study were considered controversial, though, because they relied solely on postmortem examinations. Regardless, they deserve consideration.

Since I’m writing this from Oxford University, currently at the center of a large animal rights movement, I found the following passage of the Lancet article particularly interesting:
With little public dialogue about protocols for killing human beings, it is pertinent to consider recommendations from animal euthanasia protocols. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) panel on euthanasia specifically prohibits the use of pentobarbital with a neuromuscular blocking agent to kill animals, and 19 states, including Texas, have expressly or implicitly prohibited the use of neuromuscular blocking agents in animal euthanasia because of the risk of unrecognised consciousness. Furthermore, AVMA specifies that “it is of utmost importance that personnel performing this technique are trained and knowledgeable in anaesthetic techniques, and are competent in assessing anaesthetic depth appropriate for administration of potassium chloride intravenously. Administration of potassium chloride intravenously requires animals to be in a surgical plane of anesthesia characterized by loss of consciousness, loss of reflex muscle response, and loss of response to noxious stimuli”. The absence of training and monitoring, and the remote administration of drugs, coupled with eyewitness reports of muscle responses during execution, suggest that the current practice of lethal injection for execution fails to meet veterinary standards.

(emphasis added)

This is either a dubious victory for the animal rights movement or, more likely, a stunning moral failure on the part of our legal system. The authors of the study draw what seems like the only reasonable conclusion given these circumstances:
Our data suggest that anaesthesia methods in lethal injection in the USA are flawed. Failures in protocol design, implementation, monitoring and review might have led to the unnecessary suffering of at least some of those executed. Because participation of doctors in protocol design or execution is ethically prohibited, adequate anaesthesia cannot be certain. Therefore, to prevent unnecessary cruelty and suffering, cessation and public review of lethal injections is warranted.

In a call for direct medical activism, Thursday’s Nature editorial also calls for physicians to play an active role, through their own inaction, in ending the practice of lethal injection and hopefully dealing the final deathblow to the death penalty in general:
Earlier this year, a California court told state authorities that they must persuade an anaesthetist to oversee an execution, come up with a new protocol for lethal injections — or face a hearing on whether the punishment is inhumane. The last option now looks likely.

If suitably qualified individuals refuse to help prepare a new protocol, the state will face the prospect of continuing to use amateurs to kill people with arbitrary and outmoded technology.

Scientists often abjure political activity, and could in this case argue that they are merely providing a basis from which policy-makers can make decisions. But this decision must be taken by the physicians and scientists themselves. All that is required is a refusal to participate. Men and women of science and medicine should stand shoulder to shoulder on this. Don't advise, don't prescribe, don't inject. Let the death penalty die a natural death.

May 5, 2006

NASA's Priorities Differ From Scientists'

According to a report released Thursday by the National Research Council, NASA does not have enough resources to maintain its varied programs, and science programs are likely to suffer at the hands of larger manned missions. From the official press release (the full report is available online from The National Academies Press):
NASA does not have the resources necessary to maintain a vigorous science program, complete the International Space Station, and return humans to the moon, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies' National Research Council.

"There is a mismatch between what NASA has been assigned to do and the resources with which it has been provided," said Lennard A. Fisk, chair of the committee that wrote the report and Thomas M. Donahue Collegiate Professor of Space Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "We are particularly concerned that the shortfall in funding for science has fallen disproportionately on small missions and on funding for basic research and technology. These actions run the risk of disrupting the pipeline of human capital and technology that is essential for the future success of the space program."

The committee reviewed NASA's plan for research programs for the next five years in space science, which includes astrophysics, heliophysics, planetary science, and astrobiology; earth science; and microgravity life and physical sciences. The committee found that the program proposed for space and earth sciences is neither robust nor sustainable, and that it is not properly balanced to support a healthy mix of small, moderate-sized, and large missions.

The report recommends that NASA restore small missions, research and analysis programs, and technology investment in the future missions. The agency also should preserve the ground-based and flight research required to support long-duration human space flight. For space and earth sciences, the committee concluded that the short-term resource allocation problem is modest, probably slightly more than 1 percent of the total NASA budget. To revive the microgravity life and physical sciences, the short-term allocation of resources needed is also modest -- less than 1 percent of the total NASA budget.

(emphasis added)

The cost of restoring some of these basic science programs is minuscule in the grand scheme of things. Still, these findings come only just over a week after NASA Administrator Michael Griffin testified to the US Senate that NASA funding for basic science would be cut to fund manned missions. These cuts are regrettable, and not surprisingly, they are strongly opposed by the scientific community.

A recent Planetary Science Institute survey of over 1,000 planetary scientists found that, within this community at least, smaller programs were a much greater priority than occasional major missions. Missions were divided into four categories, with the smallest and most common (research and analysis) being the first or second funding priority of 88% of respondents. As missions increased in size and became less frequent, this support decreased to 70%, then to 31%, and finally to only 11% for large flagship missions taking place about once per decade. Planetary Science Institute director Mark Sykes explains what’s at stake in the study's press release:
"The greatest danger facing American solar system exploration today is the current effort by NASA to transfer its funding to other enterprises having budget crises," Sykes said.

As a part of this, NASA has specifically targeted the survey's highest priority research programs for sharp reductions in its initial FY06 Operating Plan and FY07 budget proposal. Congressional approval is pending for both.

"Congress should direct NASA to reverse these transfers," Sykes said. "Let's not break what works."

Still, the study also found that up to 73% of respondents would be willing to spread out smaller missions to allow for large flagship missions in some cases, further backing up the idea that a truly effective space policy should involve a strategic mix of different mission types.