The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Jun 21, 2006

The Scientific Activist Has Moved!

The Scientific Activist has moved to

Please update your bookmarks! In the meantime, please feel free to browse the archives of this site.

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animal rights

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nuclear energy

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Republican Party

political interference

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scientific activism

stem cells

transgenic crops

United Kingdom


Jun 11, 2006

Move to ScienceBlogs Complete

The move to the new site over at ScienceBlogs has actually gone very smoothly, so despite what I said previously, I'm going to go ahead and stop cross-posting here. Other than one or two more updates, this is the last you're going to hear from me on this site. It's been a wild ride, and I hope you'll join me for part two!

If you haven't already, please update your blogroll, bookmarks, etc. with the new address:

Jun 10, 2006

A Conservative's Worst Nightmare: Global Warming AND Evolution

Cross-posted at

Conservatives in America have become pretty adept at shrugging off worries about global warming, and when it comes to evolution, well, they have their own ideas about how that works. However, this headline from National Geographic might cause some circuits to blow:

"Global Warming Is Spurring Evolution, Study Says"

Wow, what a catch-22! They can continue to ignore global warming but risk causing the body of evidence in favor of evolution to grow even faster, thus making it more difficult to sneak religious ideas in classrooms. On the other hand, if they try to reverse climate change, they'll have to actually admit that global warming is real and caused by humans.

Bush Science Adviser Answers Questions, but Not the Toughest Ones

Cross-posted at

I mentioned earlier this week on my old blog that White House Science Adviser John Marburger would be answering questions from the public via Newsweek, and his answers have now been posted. My reactions are mixed, although he was more open than I had expected. So, what did he say?

Well, I'll start with what he didn't say. He didn't answer any of my questions, which weren't even that hostile, so he loses points for that.

He did answer, though, several questions covering a variety of issues, from alternative fuels to space exploration, from to stem cell funding to the administration's attitude toward science. He even managed to say a few encouraging things in the process, although he avoided some issues and followed the Bush Administration line on others.

The Good

From the outset, he breaks with Bush Administration policy in answering a question about teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution:
Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. Intelligent design is not a scientific concept. One cannot be an "alternative" to the other.

Marburger also responds to an allegation that the U.S. focuses too much funding on long-term alternative energy development projects like hydrogen fuel at the expense of short-term solutions such as hybrid vehicles:
The federal government tends to fund long lead-time, high-risk research while the private sector funds shorter-term, lower-risk research and development. Both are necessary in a balanced R&D portfolio. The long-term alternatives have the potential for a much greater impact on energy technology and will definitely be needed in the future.

The Bad

In response to a question about political interference in science:
I believe such criticisms are off the mark and are based on incomplete knowledge of the administration's actions and positions. Political tensions are normal in Washington, and advocates seek to spin every incident into support for their causes. Whenever an accusation of political influence is brought to my attention, I act immediately to find out the circumstances and how the cognizant department or agency is dealing with it. The president expects agencies to report scientific findings fully and without distortion.

That would be great... if it were true. I have seem absolutely no evidence of him playing an active role in fighting political interference in science, and he is part of an administration that has time and time again suppressed science that does not fall in line with its agenda.

The Ugly

Unfortunately, Marburger delivers the administration line verbatim in defending President Bush's restrictive policies on embryonic stem cell funding:
Objections to embryonic stem-cell research are rooted in ethical principles and the idea of compromising these is repugnant to many U.S. citizens. Science alone cannot resolve ethical dilemmas, but it can clarify the potential benefits of stem-cell research. Based on careful consideration of both scientific information and ethical concerns, the president has, for the first time in history, made it possible for embryonic stem-cell research to be federally funded.

The last line is my favorite--a textbook example of GOP spin. Stem cells did not even emerge on the national agenda until the end of Clinton's administration, so Bush is basically the first president who has had the opportunity to address the issue head on. He failed miserably, and it's disappointing, to say the least, to see his science advisor letting scientific progress take a backseat to political ideology.

New Email Service and RSS Feed

For those already subscribed to my email service, and for those who aren't but would like to stay up to date, you can sign up for email updates via the ScienceBlogs site. You can choose from any or all of the ScienceBlogs, including The Scientific Activist. Also, my new RSS feed is

Jun 9, 2006

Academic Freedom Suffers in Florida

Cross-posted at

Since they serve as the intellectual lifeblood of a democracy, universities traditionally have been given license to transcend petty political squabbles that would otherwise get in the way of their academic research. One example has been the ability of academics to conduct research in Cuba, despite the U.S.’s longstanding embargo on the country, as long as they obtain the appropriate license.

In Florida, though, where the anti-Castro sentiment runs high, the state legislature last week voted unanimously to prevent researchers from state-funded universities to travel to Cub—or any of the other five countries deemed “state sponsors of terrorism” by the U.S.—even if the travel is privately funded. Needless to say, this is a serious step back for academic freedom, and it could negatively impact a wide variety of fields, as today’s Science reports:
Academics say the law will hurt efforts to learn about Cuba's agriculture, ecology, and marine environment--all topics that could have a significant effect on Florida's economy. Agricultural economist William Messina and his colleagues at the University of Florida, Gainesville, for example, have been researching citrus farming in Cuba, the world's third-largest producer of grapefruit. "Their grapefruit yield has gone up in the past few years as a result of new policies that promote collaborations between Cuban farmers and foreign agricultural and food-processing companies," says Messina. Those collaborations, he says, have meant tougher competition for Florida grapefruit growers trying to sell to Western Europe. Researchers in the state have been carrying out similar studies of Cuba's shellfish, sugar, and tomato industries.

Environmental researchers are also chagrined by the new law. FIU geographer Jennifer Gebelein, for example, is currently in Cuba looking at the impact on Cuba's coral reefs of land-cover changes around the island. The work is important from a conservation standpoint "because Cuba's coral reefs are a center of marine and biological diversity in the Caribbean," says Lauretta Burke, a geographer and senior associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. Gebelein is scrambling to finish her fieldwork before the law goes into effect on 1 July.

Marine scientist Frank Muller-Karger of the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, says that Cuba's plans for offshore oil exploration make scientific exchanges between Florida and the island more important than ever before. "Any major pollution event off the coast of Cuba may reach Florida, and many important fisheries in the Keys may be connected to Cuba," he says.

Those reasons alone are enough to make one realize this academic travel ban is a bad idea. In addition, the fact that Cuba is listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism” is suspect to begin with. For example, in the U.S. State Department’s most recent Country Report on Terrorism, released in April 2006, Cuba is given this designation, along with Libya, Sudan, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. In the section on Cuba, though, the first reasons given seem petty, to say the least:
Cuba actively continued to oppose the U.S.-led Coalition prosecuting the global war on terror and has publicly condemned various U.S. policies and actions. To U.S. knowledge, Cuba did not attempt to track, block, or seize terrorist assets, although the authority to do so is contained in Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism, as well as Instruction 19 of the Superintendent of the Cuban Central Bank. No new counterterrorism laws were enacted, nor were any executive orders or regulations issued in this regard. To date, the Cuban Government has taken no action against al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.

Cuba did not undertake any counterterrorism efforts in international and regional fora. Official government statements and the government-controlled press rarely speak out against al-Qaida or other designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

I guess the “you’re either with us or against us” doctrine is in full force here.

It’s unlikely that Florida’s ban on academics researching in Cuba has anything to do with terrorism, though. Those familiar with Florida know that the politics are driven to a large part by fervent anti-communism toward Cuba. This gives the latest move a slight touch of Cold War nostalgia, making it appear even more absurd.

Regardless of the reasons, or lack there of, for the new Florida law, it subjects scientists and academics to undue restrictive entanglements with political issues that have nothing to do with the science the first place. A law like that has got to go.

It's Moving Day for The Scientific Activist!

The new site for The Scientific Activist is now up and running at

The move is part of Seed magazine's second-round release of its popular ScienceBlogs site. If you head over to the ScienceBlogs site, you'll see that things have changed quite a bit there, including the addition of several new blogs. Have a look around, and don't forget to visit The Scientific Activist!

As far as this site goes, the next week will be a transition period, and I'll cross-post everything on this site and the new site. I'll make sure everyone knows when this site officially becomes inactive (although it will remain up indefinitely to serve as archives), and I'll provide other relevant information, including details for email subscribers.

Jun 8, 2006

Tangled Bank #55 at Get Busy Livin', or Get Gusy Bloggin'

The newest version of The Tangled Bank is now up at Get Busy Livin', or Get Busy Bloggin'.

White House "Science" Adviser to Answer Questions From Public

Via Afarensis comes news that White House Science Adviser John Marburger will be answering questions from the public (which can be submitted here) through Newsweek, and the answers will be published on Friday, June 9th. It's unclear when submissions will be cut off.

What will I be asking? Well, where do I start? Several questions come to mind about the NASA censorship scandal, as well as questions about the administration's abominable policy on embryonic stem cell research funding. We’ll see if any get answered. Ha!

While we’re on the topic of stem cells, though, The Boston Globe reports that Harvard is stepping up its efforts to be the first institution to clone human embryos and derive embryonic stem cell lines from them. In what what seems to be an unintentional use of understatement, the article notes that this research will be “complicated because it cannot be supported with federal money." The work looks to remain “complicated” for the time being as the Senate continues to delay a vote on H.R. 810, a bill which would reverse the current restrictions decreed by President Bush in 2001.

Nature Lets It All Hang Out Through Open Peer Review

One of the fundamental principles of modern science, as well as other academic pursuits, is peer review. By subjecting a submitted paper to evaluation by other scientists in the authors’ field, the solid science advances at the expense of the not-so-good and the interesting and relevant prevails above the unoriginal. In theory, of course. The effect is a growing body of scientific knowledge that, while still large and unwieldy, is at best authoritative and at the very least trustworthy and accurate. It’s a kind of democratization of knowledge, at least in a narrow sense.

But, as in any democratic system, there are problems. Contrary to the fundamental ideals of a democracy it is inherently exclusive, although this makes sense considering the extensive background knowledge and experience needed to evaluate a scientific manuscript. Of course, individuals also have vested interests in the process as well. Although science strives for objectivity, who reviews your paper does matter, and if you step on the wrong toes by not citing the reviewer’s own “definitive” papers on the subject or, even worse, refute them altogether, your findings might not get the peer review seal of approval.

Even the unimaginable can sometimes happen when results that are completely faked pass right through the peer review process and end up in a top journal. A case of this made headlines recently when a group led by scientist Hwang Woo Suk claimed in two widely-heralded papers published in Science that it had produced various lines of embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. In wake of the revelation that the results had been fabricated, a debate on the very nature of peer review ensued.

In that spirit, today's issue of Nature announced its own experiment in science—or democracy—by opening up the peer review process to all interested in participating and giving authors of submitting their papers to an open and public peer review process to take place online:
This publication champions the value of editorially driven or editorially selected content. But we are always keen to try new things, and we are now experimenting around the edges of that principle, to make the most of online interactivity….

…Less certain is the outcome of a trial that we launch this week: a test of a particular type of open peer review. The trial is accompanied by a general online debate about peer review; see

During the trial, which will last several months, Nature's traditional approach to peer review will continue: typically, we send selected submissions to two or three experts whose identities are kept confidential. We believe that this approach works well. Meanwhile, over the next few weeks, the web debate will explore other approaches, as well as the potential for online techniques to unpack the various functions of conventional journals, the ethics of peer review, and more.

Our online trial opens up a parallel track of peer review for submitted papers for authors willing to go down that route. The traditional process will still be applied to all submissions selected for peer review. But we will also offer to post the submitted manuscript onto an open website. Anyone can then respond to it by posting online comments, provided they are willing to sign them. Once Nature's editors have received all the comments from their solicited confidential reviewers, the open website will cease to take comments, and all the opinions will be considered by the editors as well as the authors.

The details of the trial can be found in the online FAQ. Nature published additional articles on the subject here and has made available a forum and a collection of resources on the topic.

So, is this a good idea? It’s hard to say at this point, although Nature seems to be doing the appropriate thing by approaching this experiment cautiously, adding open peer review as an optional preliminary step in the longer peer review process. And, although any peer review process by definition should only include the authors’ peers (i.e. experts in the same or a similar field), this seems to compliment the recent push toward open access literature, which I’ve discussed at length previously.

Although it never comes close enough to the ideal in practice, science should be an open enterprise, characterized by the free exchange of information between professionals dedicated to expanding our body of scientific knowledge. When one takes into consideration the fact that science is largely a taxpayer funded enterprise, a new ideal emerges, one where free open access to the scientific literature and the peer review process allow information to flow uninhibited within the scientific community and enable interested citizens to observe their financial contributions in action.

Putting the grand ideals aside, though, and in light of recent lapses, a few extra pairs of watchful eyes in the process couldn’t hurt.

Update 9 Jun 2006 10:58 GMT: The first article has now been submitted on the Nature site for open peer review. The title of the manuscript is "H5N1 Avian Influenza Virus Evolution: Twice faster than Old Viruses", and it can be found here.
Update 9 Jun 2006 16:44 GMT: ...and another one. It looks like they're on a roll now.

Jun 7, 2006

194th Carnival of the Vanities at Punny Money

The 194th edition of the Carnival of the Vanities is up at Punny Money and features a post from yours truly. The Carnival of the Vanities is the original blog carnival, bringing together posts on a wide variety of categories from around the web.

Jun 4, 2006

Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest

I think we can all agree that political interference in science is a pretty big problem right now. One of the preferred methods here at The Scientific Activist of dealing with this has been discovering that the interferer lied on his resume, causing him to immediately resign from his position of influence. Since that isn't always an option, though, the Union of Concerned Scientists has announced a different approach:
The Union of Concerned Scientists is hosting Science Idol: the Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest. We're looking for your creative take on the issue of political interference in science. Submit one-panel or multi-panel, print cartoons that address the misuse of science on a specific issue or in general...

...The subject of the cartoons must relate to political interference in science in the federal government. UCS defines political interference in science as action by elected officials or political appointees to manipulate, alter, or suppress independent government science or inappropriately restrict or censor government scientists. This definition is distinct from the ethics of scientists themselves; direct corporate influence over science; or more ethical debates on issues like stem cell research.

The prizes look nice, and it's for a good cause, so if you have the skills (unlike me) it's worth taking a look at.

Hat tip to Sex Drugs and DNA.

Jun 3, 2006

Oxford Scientific Activists Take Their Message to the Streets

The only sounds were those of passing traffic and the whispers of interested observers as close to 1,000 people marched together in silence today down Oxford’s High Street. Although the stated reason for the quiet was to avoid disturbing the many Oxford students currently taking their exams in the nearby Examination Schools, the symbolism was as tangible as the warmth of the brilliant sunlight shining favorably on the large crowd through a rare cloudless English day.

Supporters of animal research have been silenced for years by the intimidation and fear tactics of animal rights extremists. But, just as the chants in favor of research, science, progress, and reason resumed today when the crowd turned north to march toward the Science Area, so to was it apparent that a new era of speaking out in favor of science had begun. Originally sparked by Pro-Test when it first took its message to the streets of Oxford in February of this year, the movement has since ignited into a wildfire of support, reaching the highest levels of the UK government, including Prime Minister Tony Blair. What really matters, though, is that this is a grassroots movement that draws on the efforts of ordinary students and citizens, both scientists and non-scientists alike, to give a voice to those who have been quiet for so long.

Pro-Test’s second march—held today, June 3rd—carried on the momentum built in the first, drawing on the participation of concerned citizens in a true show of scientific activism. Although this time the Pro-Test organizers’ and volunteers’ uniforms were more professional, the sound system more powerful, and the endorsements more elite, more than anything the march was a show of democratic participation that is rarely seen in the sciences.

As I approached the demonstration, which began on Parks Road, I could hear the chants from almost a block away:
Animal research saves lives! Build the Oxford lab!

What do we want? The Oxford Lab! When do we want it? Now!

Pro-science! Progress! Pro-Test!

Stand up for Research! Stand up for Science!

The signs the participants displayed were just as varied, most brought by individuals or groups, but some apparently made by the Pro-Test organizers. The energetic chanting continued until around noon, when Pro-Test committee member Tom Holder, who would once again be the emcee for the event, got on the loudspeaker and kicked things off. After a short speech by Pro-Test’s sixteen-year-old founder Laurie Pycroft, Alan Duncan took the stand. Duncan, a member of parliament from the Conservative Party, described how both corporate and scientific interests have crumbled in the face of animal rights extremism in the past and why this situation needs to change. Going into the broader implications of the animal rights debate, he described an ongoing “battle to stop the pollution of a child’s mind” by anti-science propaganda.

MP Alan Duncan addresses the crowd

Next up was someone who has become a familiar face at Pro-Test events: Evan Harris, one of Oxford’s members of parliament and the Liberal Democrats’ science spokesman. He spoke about the same topics he talked about at Pro-Test’s recent public meeting, including the need to balance freedom of speech with protecting the university and its scientists and his push for mandatory labeling of pharmaceuticals with a statement about the role animal research had in developing the product. He also chastised other governmental officials, including the health secretary and the development minister, for not stressing the role animal research has played in the types of developments that they regularly publicize or use in their work.

After reading two endorsements, from former Home Secretary Charles Clark and Andy Burnham—a Minister of State at the Department of Health—Tom Holder introduced the next speaker, Ken Fleming, who currently heads the Medical Sciences Division at Oxford. He spoke of Oxford’s proud legacy in the medical sciences and the need for animal research if this is to continue. To further justify the pro-research cause he noted “animal research is legal here… and more tightly regulated than anywhere else in the world.”

As another endorsement, of sorts, Tom Holder then read excerpts from a recent Guardian article by professor Robert Winston, including the following:
How disgraceful that a 16-year-old boy has put the medical and scientific establishment, drug companies and universities to shame. Laurie Pycroft was in Oxford when he was outraged to see animal rights protesters marching through the street. He wrote out his own pro-testing placard and waved it furiously. Within days Laurie had enthused thousands of students and academics. The whole tenor of the discussion changed, and a debate at the Oxford Union voted massively in favour of animal research….

…The last big drug disaster in the UK happened because of a lack of animal research. Four decades ago, when thalidomide's awful effects were revealed, the drug was returned to the lab to be tested on pregnant animals for the first time. Birth defects were quickly seen in mice and rabbits. This prompted an overhaul of the legislation and is the basis for our laws on drug development.

Emcee Tom Holder reads the endorsements

Next up was author Niki Shisler, who, like at the Pro-Test public meeting, talked from a personal perspective, focusing on her disabled child. She believes medical research involving animals is particularly important because “without that research, we face a very bleak future.” She also noted that “there has been a pitiful silence in this country from the end users of medicines,” and instead these people (i.e. everybody) should also stand up for the animal research that made these drugs possible.

The final speaker on Parks Road was Alison Eden, a medical writer and a member of the Pro-Test committee. She lightened the mood with a story about visiting her leg-waxer. The point of the story, though, was that when asked what her plans were for the weekend, she lied instead of talking about participating in a march for animal research. I found the story somewhat unbelievable, since she’s apparently not afraid to stand up in front of hundreds of people at such an event, but it did serve to emphasize the intimidation that many have felt around this issue. She noted something that I have stressed before, that “the organizers of [the animal rights organization] SPEAK are against animal research regardless of whether it works,” although they do not openly admit that, and that they “hide behind junk science,” insisting that computer models and tissue culture work can replace animal research. “This isn’t science,” she said. “This is fiction!”

The first round of speeches concluded around 12:30, and as we began marching, the chants resumed as well. The march took us to High Street, and then back to the origin on Parks Road. Although the march down High Street was silent, the crowd began chanting again when we turned off of High Street onto Longwall Street. There seemed to be some improvisation at this point, as the first chant was a before unheard and somewhat awkward “Animal research, we want more. It’s what we need to get a cure.” This caused someone nearby to comment sarcastically that he was confused because “It’s not on the chant list.” The presence of a “chant list” at all seemed to once again highlight the strange and unique nature of a pro-science march. The organizers soon returned to the more established and catchier chants we were all used to, though, as we continued the march down Parks Road and South Parks Road toward the building site of the new biomedical research center, which has come to embody the debate over animal research at Oxford.

During the march, I had the opportunity to observe the crowd to get a better idea of who was there. The crowd was incredibly diverse in a variety of ways. The ages of the people there spanned the entire spectrum, from toddlers to the elderly, although the largest demographic appeared to be university students. The viewpoints expressed in the crowd were just as diverse. Although supporting scientific research is in many ways an establishmentarian cause, many people present seemed to buck that trend. At one point, a girl I didn’t know asked if she could borrow my pen. She quickly scrawled out a sign that, somewhat ironically, read “ANARCHISTS AGAINST CANCER”. Also present was a group called The Manifesto Club, which “supports scientific development, experimentation and human progress,” including supporting the goals of Pro-Test. However, it “opposes legal injunctions against anti-vivisectionists,” because “if animal rights activists are not free to demonstrate for what they believe in, we all lose our freedom to engage in democratic protest.” The diversity in demographics and opinion here stands in stark contrast to the more monolithic nature of the animal rights protests.

Across the street from the construction site, the event concluded with three speakers. The first was Colin Blakemore, the head of the Medical Research Council. He spoke about the current increase in acceptance of animal research “one of the most remarkable changes in public perception,” effectively making animal research “no longer controversial.”

Peter McNaughton gives his support from Cambridge

Despite the ongoing Oxford/Cambridge rivalry, the next speaker was Peter McNaughton, head of the Department of Pharmacology at Cambridge. He tore down the idea that animal researchers go into the lab looking forward to cutting up animals, emphasizing that generally researchers are reluctant to work on animals at all, and approach the work with a great deal of reverence and respect. He also took on the idea that tissue culture and computer models can replace animal research in drug development. He noted that these techniques are already used very heavily and currently eliminate many potential drugs, but they cannot prove that a drug will be effective or safe, something that animal research is much more adept at. The presence of a Cambridge head of department, as well as several government officials, served to demonstrate how the Pro-Test movement had grown to be something much bigger than just countering animal rights protesters in Oxford.

Iain Simpson on the mic, accompanied by Tom Holder

The day concluded with a surprisingly impassioned speech by Iain Simpson, another Pro-Test committee member. Although the energy was needed by a crowd that had just participated in a long march in an event starting to drag through its second hour, Simpson’s speech was over-the-top at times and almost had the feel of a Howard-Dean-in-Iowa moment. It never quite reached that level, though, and instead the event ended on a high note, leaving the crowd looking forward to the next march and energized to do something about the situation in the meantime. “We are here because animal research saves lives, and we are not just justified in doing this but we have a moral responsibility to do so!” Simpson yelled. “We are the silent majority and we are finding our voice!”

Seed Move Postponed

Although I had announced earlier that I would be moving to the ScienceBlogs site by now, the powers that be informed me earlier this week that the move had been postponed and that the release of all of the new blogs would be delayed while some technical and organizational issues are sorted out. The move should still happen in the next couple of weeks, though, so stay tuned.

Jun 1, 2006

Pro-Test March This Saturday

The pro-research organization Pro-Test will be holding its second major march this Saturday, June 3rd, in Oxford. Click here for the full details, but in short, the march will begin at 11:45 am at the corner of Parks Road and Broad Street and should last about an hour and a half.

The last march was pretty powerful, so I'm expecting some big things from this one.