The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Apr 29, 2006

Upcoming Event: Michael Stebbins in Oxford, Friday May 5th, 4:00 pm

This announcement is for all of my local readers. Michael Stebbins, author of Sex, Drugs and DNA: Science's Taboos Confronted and creator of Sex Drugs and will be giving a talk on bioterrorism and biodefense this Friday in Oxford. I had the pleasure of helping to plan the event in conjunction with the Oxford University Biochemical Society.

The Oxford University Biochemical Society presents:

Dr. Michael Stebbins
Director of Biology Policy – Federation of American Scientists
Author – Sex, Drugs and DNA: Science’s Taboos Confronted

“Biosecurity Policy and the Scientific Community: New Challenges in an Age of Terrorism”

4:00 pm
Friday 5th May 2006

Chemistry Research Laboratory
Wolfson Seminar Room
(Located on the corner of South Parks Road and Mansfield Road, see map)


Dr. Michael Stebbins is the Director of Biology Policy at the Federation of American Scientists and manages their Biosecurity Project. He has a B.S. in Biology from SUNY at Stony Brook and received his Ph.D. in genetics while working at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he built tetracycline-inducible transgene systems for Drosophila, mice, and cultured primary neurons to study the molecular mechanisms of memory formation.

After leaving Cold Spring Harbor, Dr. Stebbins worked as a Senior Editor at Nature Genetics where he coordinated the peer-review of research papers and wrote content for the magazine. In the fall of 2004 he moved to Washington, DC, and worked as a Congressional fellow for US Senator Harry Reid through the National Human Genome Research Institute.

He has also worked as a journalist writing for Reuters and as a science advisor to ScienCentral a television production company that produces stories for the ABC and NBC affiliates. In 2006, he launched Sex Drugs and in conjunction with the publication of his first book, Sex, Drugs and DNA: Science’s Taboos Confronted.

Apr 27, 2006

Science to Suffer at NASA

On Tuesday, April 25th, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin testified before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space that science funding at NASA would have to be cut in order to fund human space flight. Citing national security interests among other reasons, Griffin detailed the agency’s priorities of getting the space shuttle program on track before the program is canceled in 2010 and then developing its replacement, scheduled to launch in 2014. This shifting of funding follows a trend that began in 2004, when President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, which featured a call for manned missions to the moon and to Mars.

The focus on manned spaceflight is widely seen as a distraction from some of the important science currently taking place at NASA, including further exploring our solar system by sending probes to various planets, working to better understanding the makeup of our universe, and searching for conditions hospitable for life in our solar system and beyond. According to The New York Times, science funding at NASA will be reduced by $3 billion dollars in the coming years to make room for more manned missions.

Although sometimes criticized as more PR than science, manned missions surely play an important role in the space program, spurring the development of new technologies, performing various scientific experiments, and, of course, shoring up public support for the space program in general. Still, a disproportionate amount of science takes place in unmanned missions for the amount of funding they receive, and sacrificing this science seems misguided at this point.

Griffin argued that insufficient funding is the primary obstacle holding back NASA’s new human spaceflight program:
Dr. Griffin said that the new spaceship to carry humans, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, should be ready by 2014, and that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was looking at ways to speed its development to deliver it a year or two sooner. The main limit to flying the new ship, which could take crews to the International Space Station and later to the moon, is money, he said.

Regardless of whether this is true, it is clear that this is not the case for manned flight in general at NASA, as The New York Times reported earlier this week that money is the least of the worries for the embattled space shuttle program:
A string of distracting accidents, safety incidents and tough technical questions have complicated NASA's efforts to get the space shuttle program back on track.

The shuttle Discovery is to fly again in July, in only the second mission since the Columbia disaster in February 2003. But there are continuing questions about fuel-tank foam, which doomed the Columbia and bedeviled the Discovery's return-to-flight mission last year, and about other parts on the aging shuttle fleet.

And this winter, there were so many accidents — a robot arm damaged by a moving work platform, a dropped film canister that damaged heat tiles on the shuttle Endeavour, a small fire in the assembly building — that last month the director of the Kennedy Space Center stopped all work for two hours and lectured employees on safety.

When work resumed the next day, a worker was killed in a fall from a warehouse roof.

Hopefully NASA will be able to overcome these tough obstacles so the space shuttle can safely fly as soon as possible. In the meantime, though, it is ill-advised to sacrifice more fruitful scientific programs for something of much less scientific significance. Although manned space flight is a great source of national pride and its further development should be encouraged, NASA needs to reevaluate its priorities.

Apr 26, 2006

India Travelogue, Day 3: Delhi

This is a note for all of the new people coming to the site for the first time to read my travelogue. If you would like to receive daily email updates informing you of new posts at The Scientific Activist, I’d encourage you to sign up for my email service here.

Sunday, March 25th, was my second full day in India, and I spent much of the day absorbing the previous day’s experiences as well as waiting for additional members of our group to arrive. We started out the day with half of the six members of our group—Swati Mylavarapu had arrived very early that morning—but by the time we went to bed that night, our group was complete. David Robinson arrived around 11:00 am, and although he was severely jetlagged, he joined us as we headed off to see the city. Swati led the way: as her family originally comes from India, she was the only member of our group who had visited India before (and she speaks a bit of Hindi as well).

A cross section of Delhi traffic.

We started off with lunch at the Spice Route, a southeastern Asian restaurant in the Imperial Hotel. Although I wasn’t expecting to eat many expensive meals in India, the food was great, the atmosphere nice, the decorations elaborate, and for about 9 GBP per person, it was definitely worth eating in a restaurant chosen as one of the top ten in the world by Conde Nast Traveler (although I’m not sure if it was that good).

After lunch we headed to the nearby Janpath market, which we were disappointed to find mostly closed since it was Sunday. Instead, we headed across the street to the government-run Central Cottage Industries Emporium, which is an enormous multi-story store with items ranging from clothing to handicrafts to rugs and home furnishings from all over India. I didn’t buy anything during this visit (buying something involves visiting a total of three different counters: one to take the items of interest and give you an invoice, another to take payment, and a final counter to give you your paid merchandise. A few things caught my eye, though, including some of the wooden and papier-mâché boxes, and I returned to the emporium a couple of weeks later to buy some of these on my way out of the country.

Examples of Kashmiri papier-mâché handicrafts.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and continuing our exploration of the area around our hotel. Later on in the evening, Allison left to meet our final arrivals at the airport. David, Swati, and I had dinner at our hotel’s rooftop restaurant while we waited for the rest of the group. When the others arrived around midnight, we went back up to the restaurant so they could eat. The arrivals of Cyrus Habib and Alex Halderman marked the completion of our group and the official beginning of our trip, so we celebrated with a bottle of somewhat suspicious-looking Indian whiskey. Allison, Cyrus, David, Swati, and I already knew each other because we all currently study at Oxford University (although we’re all American). Alex, on the other hand, is a graduate student at Princeton University, and he knew David from their undergraduate days there.

After dinner, we engaged in a lively discussion about religion in India and the Middle East, coming to the conclusion that contrary to the common portrayal of these areas in the West, neither area is so much more religious than other places. Most of the characteristics that contribute to their over-spiritualized image are probably better described as cultural phenomena. After our discussion, I went downstairs for some fresh air, and I was shocked back to reality by observing about five people sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

Tangled Bank #52 at The Innoculated Mind

To find out what's been going on in the science blogosphere over the last couple of weeks, head over to The Innoculated Mind for the latest edition of the Tangled Bank, the web's premier science blog carnival. Karl Mogel, the blog's publisher, lightheartedly recommends that you should "tilt the screen back when you read it." You'll see what I mean.

World Bank Accused of Dropping the Ball on Malaria Program

As I continue the course of anti-malarial tablets that I'm supposed to take for four weeks after returning from India, an article from yesterday’s Independent caught my eye:
The world's largest foreign aid organisation is accused today of deception and medical malpractice that has contributed to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of children from malaria.

The World Bank, which has a $20bn (£11.2bn) budget and a mission to reduce poverty, is alleged to have published misleading financial claims and false statistical accounts and wasted money on ineffective medicines for treating the disease, which kills more than a million people a year, 90 per cent of them children….

… Today, 13 malaria specialists from around the world accuse the World Bank of reneging on its promise to spend at least $300m on malaria control in Africa. They say much of its spending from 2000 to 2005 has been concealed, but the available figures suggest it has spent less than half the amount pledged….

… Writing in the online edition of The Lancet, the authors, led by Professor Amir Attaran, a lawyer and malaria specialist from Ottawa University, say they made repeated attempts to raise their concerns with the Bank but were refused a meeting. "We therefore introduce our recommendations here, for concerned citizens to contact their elected representatives and urge the necessary changes on the Bank," they write.

It’s unclear whether these allegations tell the whole story or if these charges are trumped up, but the authors of the Lancet article raise an important issue, and this will be an interesting story to follow.

Apr 25, 2006

India Travelogue, Day 2: Delhi

When Allison and I left the hotel early the next afternoon, we found ourselves in a completely different world. Although the streets had been empty and silent when we arrived late the night before, they were now packed with people going about their daily lives. The area we were staying in, Karol Bagh, was not particularly touristy, and we saw only a couple of people who appeared to be European or American, or who even looked like tourists at all. This was a pleasant finding, and it made the experience that much more real.

The sun, almost directly overhead, was bright and warm, but not unpleasantly so. It was a nice change from the dreary weather of England, and I enjoyed wearing a short-sleeved shirt outside for the first time in months. The dust that I had found so striking the night before was still present the next day, and it would be ubiquitous throughout Delhi.

March 25th was our first full day in India, and since the rest of our group of six would not be arriving until the next day, Allison and I spent the day just taking in India. And, there was a lot to take in. The fast-paced automotive chaos of the airport highway translated here to streets crowded mostly with people and autorickshaws, but also with cars and the occasional cow. The poverty was pervasive, but not necessarily overbearing. Most of the people seemed busy with some purpose, although I saw several people who clearly lived on the streets and faced a grinding destitute poverty. Since almost everyone we saw was probably financially poor, though, it’s impressive that some of the poverty was able to stand out at all.

Although we generally kept to ourselves, Allison in particular seemed to attract people’s attention. It wasn’t necessarily because her skin was white or because she was wearing westernized clothes, although those were surely important factors here. In fact, she was one of the few women at all that we saw that afternoon. I still don’t know if this was because of the time of day or because of where we were, because we did not observe this same phenomenon everywhere we went.

We walked about fairly aimlessly, although carefully keeping track of our location relative to the hotel. Each street we turned down seemed more crowded than the last. India was inescapable: the hoards of people, the vehicles, the noises, the enticing smells coming from the street food, the signs piled upon signs covering the sides of buildings. There was an energy running through the place that was hard to ignore. It was absolutely invigorating.

After we felt like we had absorbed enough of our surroundings, we decided to head toward New Delhi for a change of scenery, and hopefully to find some food. We had so far only seen street food, and although it was tempting, we were both pretty serious about avoiding anything that could make us sick (this turned out to be a virtual impossibility). We hired an autorickshaw to take us to Paharganj, an area about halfway between Old and New Delhi. Rickshaws, small three-wheel vehicles with meager two-cylinder engines, instantly became our preferred means of travel, mostly because of the price. We negotiated the price for this trip down to Rs 35, about 0.40 GBP, which was comparable to what we would pay the rest of our time in Delhi, and was probably about half as much as a taxi would have cost. Autorickshaws were cheap, simple, and all over the place. This last characteristic was clearly a product of the first two which have led to rickshaws now dominating the roads in many parts of India. Many people consider them to be pests, and it is expected that as the standard of living increases throughout India they will slowly disappear as more people can afford their own motorcycles. If riding in a car in India was stressful, riding in an autorickshaw was absolutely terrifying (probably like driving a go-kart down a Texas highway full of full-sized pickup trucks)—but only at first. I came to enjoy it as just another part of the experience.

Autorickshaws in Delhi traffic.

Paharganj felt more ancient that Karol Bagh, but also slightly more touristy, as we found ourselves in an area full of European hippie backpacker tourists, a demographic we ran into time and time again throughout our time in India. We didn’t find anything to eat, though, so we headed further toward the center of New Delhi, to Connaught Place, an enormous traffic circle made up of two concentric circles, intersected by close to ten busy streets. It was nearby, so we decided to walk. On our way, we met a boy, probably just a few years younger than us, who was very interested in talking to us to “practice his English.” He had long slicked-back hair, wore sunglasses, and sported more stylish clothes than we were used to seeing in India. He spoke English well, almost flawlessly, which we were not used to. Although almost everyone we interacted with spoke some English, it was generally very broken, and often mixed with Hindi. I’m still not exactly sure how widespread English really is in India, and I still have a feeling that most people in India probably don’t speak English, or at least don’t want to. Regardless, the people we needed to communicate with to get around invariably spoke enough English for us to get by.

Our new friend seemed very concerned with our wellbeing, and he highly suggested that we check out the “government tourism center” across the street to get a “free map.” Although he was nice to talk to, it was clearly a ploy to take us somewhere for him to earn a commission (since I still have not seen a “government tourism center," although there is a place that suspiciously sports such a label in the map above). We passed on his offer, and continued on to Connaught Place. Within a few minutes he was back again, or so I thought at first. It was actually a different boy, but wearing almost exactly the same uniform. He had the same story: he studies at the local university, he enjoys practicing his English by talking to tourists, and he really thinks we should go to the government tourism center to get a free map. We ran into versions of this same character several times, culminating in a group of about ten of him, all trying at once to get us to go to the tourism center they were pointing at.

A map of Delhi. During our first day, Allison and I basically made a triangle, starting at Karol Bagh in the northwest, continuing through Connaught Place to India Gate in the center/east, turning north toward the Red Fort, and then heading westward back to the hotel.

At Connaught Place, we finally found a restaurant that met our still overly stringent requirements, and the food was absolutely delicious, which I found to be a common theme throughout my travels in India. I had a mutton (goat) dish, along with some rice and naan (bread). I learned to eat in the traditional style, mixing my meat and rice together, and using my naan as both a utensil and a food. Allison had a mushroom masala, which was also very tasty. The vegetarian food in India was the best I have ever had, and it was often better, or at least more interesting, than the meat dishes: if there is anywhere I would consider being a vegetarian, it would have to be in India. I had a bottle of Kingfisher beer (one of the only beers widely available in India, a country that until recently was still widely prohibitionist) with dinner. It was a great first meal for the trip, although what was meant to be a late lunch turned into an early dinner because it had taken us so long to find a place to eat.

After lunch/dinner, we walked around (literally) Connaught Place, and then took an autorickshaw to India Gate, a large monument in the center of town. Since it was a Saturday night, we found the surrounding parkland (a surprising find in itself in the middle of Delhi) full of picnicking families, giving it a lively carnival-like atmosphere. Our autorickshaw driver had apparently followed us around India Gate, and eventually he convinced us to let him take us to Old Delhi proper. There, we had a great view of the Red Fort, which is brightly lit up at night. We spent most of our time, though, touring a Jain temple. I found Jainism to be one of the more interesting local religions, as it focuses on extreme nonviolence and vegetarianism, and one of its central tenants is the intrinsic value of all living things. Because its followers are not allowed to hurt even a fly, some of the most devoted among them wear face coverings to prevent themselves from accidentally breathing in or swallowing (and killing) an insect. In that same tradition, this particular temple featured a bird hospital. We explored the nearby areas, and also observed a Sikh temple. Interestingly, on the side of the temple were the five main tenets of this particular sect of Sikhism, written out in English. One of them was the use of special underwear to prevent adultery. This raised more questions than it answered.

Sometime after about 10:00 pm or so, we decided that it was time to head back to the hotel. We went to find an autorickshaw, but all of the drivers were clearly offering only highly inflated prices. Although I turned him away at first, we were approached constantly by a particularly persistent cycle-rickshaw driver. Neither of us really wanted to take a cycle-rickshaw, not just because it would be much slower, but because there’s something unsettling about exploiting someone else’s manual labor for personal transportation, especially when that person is obviously struggling and appears emaciated. The price was so much better, though, that his offer was tempting.

“How long will it take?” I asked.

“Twenty-five minutes. I’m very fast,” he responded.

Allison and I hesitatingly got in the rickshaw, something we would soon come to regret and a mistake we would not repeat. The ride started out harmlessly enough. Our driver was very friendly, and he pointed out several sights along the way. He was from Nepal, and he had moved to Delhi to make money to send his family back home. As the ride began to draw out past the twenty-five minute mark, he became quieter, and the city seemed to slowly clear out until it was almost empty. Although they were present in the day as well, animals roamed freely at night, particularly cows and stray dogs. I never thought that I could find anything scary about a cow, but as we passed through a small herd in the middle of the dark nighttime street, something about their big black penetrating eyes staring back at me did little to put me at ease. Still, the cows were just going about their own business, mostly looking for food. The cows in Delhi looked malnourished and skinny and from what I can tell subsisted mostly on garbage.

A cow walking through the streets of Delhi.

As the night dragged on, we saw more and more people sleeping on the side of the road. In some places, the whole sidewalk was covered with people. Although the weather was not bad for staying outside, the sight of such poverty was truly shocking, and many of the images are still frozen in my mind.

Sometime around the first time our driver stopped to ask for directions, roughly an hour into the trip, brilliant bolts of lighting began to light up the night sky. Eventually heavy deliberate drops began to fall, but the promised storm never materialized, which was fortunate for us. It was still the dry season, and this was the only time we experienced rain during our trip. Still, the roads seemed to become darker and steeper and our situation more hopeless as our driver stopped increasingly frequently to ask for directions. For a while he clearly had no idea where he was going.

The Hotel Indraprastha never looked better than when we finally arrived that night, approaching two hours after our time of departure. Although it was after midnight when we returned, we discovered the hotel’s rooftop café and had a late dinner there. The scenery was beautiful, the atmosphere was relaxed—complete with candlelight—and the food was impressive. Combined with a cold Kingfisher beer, it was the perfect way to end my first day in India and prepare for another.

Apr 24, 2006

India Travelogue, Day 1: Oxford to Delhi

For the next couple of weeks, my blog will feature (in addition to its ongoing coverage of science and politics) a day-by-day travelogue of my recent trip to India, spanning from 24 March until 10 April. I was inspired to do so by two of my friends, Ruth Anne and Jake, who are in the process of retrospectively describing their recent travels in Moldova and Romania on their blog Beer, Bikes, Books, and Good Eats. At the risk of being overly gimmicky, I’ll log my travels exactly one month after they happened (i.e. today on the 24th of April I’ll be writing about the 24th of March). I’ll post some photos here when they’re relevant, but you can always view the complete collection at my online photo album. Now sit back and prepare to be whisked away to the other side of the world (for most of my readers, at least) as we venture to India to vicariously relive my adventures and misadventures in a truly interesting and enchanting land.

When I find myself in a strange new place it always feels at least a little surreal. I never know why this is, and you would think that the eight-and-a-half-hour plane ride would have already driven home the point before I landed. Still, somehow I was surprised to find myself almost exactly on the opposite side of the world from my home in Texas.

My flight left London at 9:30 on the morning of the 24th of March. Since it can take an hour or two to get to Heathrow airport from Oxford and my since therefore my bus would be leaving very early in the morning, I had opted to stay up for the entire preceding night, expecting to sleep on the plane. Because of that, I was in a pretty weird state when I arrived at the airport, but my excitement for my upcoming trip overshadowed that.

When I arrived at the gate for my departure, I could already tell this journey would be much different from any of my previous ones. I found myself to be one of the only people in the gate who did not appear to be Indian, by descent or nationality. Although finding oneself in the minority can be intimidating, this just added to the excitement. As I waited to board the plane, I admired what people were wearing. As I would find throughout most of India, the women were predominately wearing traditional saris, full of color, and the men were wearing more of a Western style of dress. Still, even many of the men accented themselves with a colorful array of Sikh turbans.

From England to India

I flew Jet Airways, a domestic Indian airline that only recently began offering international flights. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was in the end pleasantly surprised. Although I had planned on sleeping through the flight, I was instead distracted by the impressive selection of on-demand movies. Since it was being offered, I decided that I had to watch Gandhi, which I hadn’t seen since eighth grade social studies class. Sadly, my lack of sleep caught up with me soon after Gandhi returned to India from South Africa—where the beginning of the movie takes place—just when the movie was becoming relevant to my journey.

With the exception of a minor medical emergency experienced by the woman sitting next to me (don’t worry—she was okay in the end), the flight passed without major incident, and I was able to relax and prepare myself for my two-week trip. Or, I tried to prepare myself, at least.

Despite my best efforts, India hit me like a brick wall, not when the plane landed, but when I left the dependable and consistent comfortable familiarity of the airport. After finding my baggage and then driver the hotel had sent to pick me up, the driver and I walked through a tunnel where I had my first taste of grinding Indian poverty as we were approached by a line of beggars. When we walked outside, I was surprised to find that even though it was 11:30 at night, it looked almost like late afternoon or early morning, due to the overpowering presence of dust particles in the air, reflecting the lights of the parking lot. I felt closed in, in our own world of dust, only adding to the surreality of the experience.

As my sight penetrated the dust, I saw the parking lot through a filter that subtly removed all of the color in the scene. Although I’m sure the colors were in reality much more varied, all I can remember in retrospect is a dust-covered whiteness, from people’s clothing to the dilapidated cars filling the lot. This was just the beginning, though, and nothing could have actually prepared me for the insanity of driving in India.

When first experienced, Indian roads appear to persist in a state of complete and utter chaos. Cars drive within inches of each other, unfazed and irrespective of the lanes marked on the roads. Small European-looking cars share the road with large and surprisingly elaborately decorated trucks, along with tractors, motorcycles, three-wheel autorickshaws, and animal-drawn carts. The honking never stops, and the whole experience is a symphony of cacophonous sounds and a three-dimensional collage of bright and unexpected colors. I was on the edge of my seat as we weaved in and out of this strange collection of vehicles, occasionally driving around barriers placed strangely in the middle of the road and even running red lights. The experience was intensified by the fact that the driver for some reason wouldn’t let me wear my seatbelt.

After the original shock wore off, though, a pattern emerged. People didn’t honk to say “Get the hell out of my way, asshole!” but rather to say “I’m right next to you. Watch out.” The drivers had evolved an unspoken means of communicating to each other through their horns. In fact, on the back of every truck was painted (in bright colors) variations of the command “Please honk.” It was an elegant system, and vision seemed almost unnecessary for safe driving.

When we arrived at the Hotel Indraprastha—somehow in one piece—the city seemed deserted, in stark contrast to the busy highway nearer the airport, and the crowded Delhi street I would emerge into the next day. It was late, but the hotel was open twenty-four hours a day; although, as I unexpectedly discovered soon after, “twenty-four hours” meant that hotel employees would be sleeping on the floor outside of my door.

I was the first to arrive out of a group that would eventually number six in total. This was somewhat ironic, since I had significantly less traveling experience than anyone else on the trip. It would be another forty-eight hours before our group was complete, but the second arrival, Allison Gilmore, joined me at the hotel after just a few hours later. By that point, though, it was time for bed. India could wait until tomorrow.

Apr 23, 2006

Setting the Record Straight on Global Warming

The media is by its very nature sensational, and on the issue of global warming this can swing both ways. Therefore, there was a big fuss over a study in Nature this past Thursday that seemed to lay out a more conservative estimate for the expected increase in temperature due to global warming. Although some coverage was more damning than others, the quantity of press on the subject was extensive.

As an article the next day in Science explained, though, all the Nature paper did was narrow down the range of possible scenarios to what was already the widely accepted range. The paper had found that the earth’s climate sensitivity (the number of degrees Celsius that the earth’s temperature is expected to increase following a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) falls more comfortably within the range of 1.5°C to 6.2°C:
Here we demonstrate that such observational estimates of climate sensitivity can be tightened if reconstructions of Northern Hemisphere temperature over the past several centuries are considered. We use large-ensemble energy balance modelling and simulate the temperature response to past solar, volcanic and greenhouse gas forcing to determine which climate sensitivities yield simulations that are in agreement with proxy reconstructions. After accounting for the uncertainty in reconstructions and estimates of past external forcing, we find an independent estimate of climate sensitivity that is very similar to those from instrumental data. If the latter are combined with the result from all proxy reconstructions, then the 5–95 per cent range shrinks to 1.5–6.2 K, thus substantially reducing the probability of very high climate sensitivity.

In short, by combining various diverse sources of data, the researchers were able to make a more specific prediction of future temperature increases. A figure from the Science article illustrates this point:

Previous analyses (left) indicated that there was a real chance that the earth’s temperature could increase anywhere from less than 1°C to 10°C or more. The new analysis (right) narrows this range, and although it decreased the upper estimate, it also increased the lower one. According to the Science article, the expected warming may not be outrageous as some had predicted, but it is still significant:
Now two new studies that combine independent lines of evidence agree that climate sensitivity is at least moderately strong--moderate enough so that a really scorching warming appears unlikely. Even with the most conservative assumptions, says climate researcher Chris E. Forest of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the studies cool the maximum warming. And the reinforced low end of the range, he says, means continued emissions will fuel a substantial warming in this century….

…The two new studies rein in those soaring upper limits for climate sensitivity while reinforcing the substantial lower limit. Climate modeler Gabriele Hegerl of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues started with Northern Hemisphere temperatures between 1270 and 1850 extracted from records such as tree rings. In those preindustrial times, volcanoes, the waxing and waning of the sun, and natural variations in greenhouse gases were changing temperature. Hegerl and her colleagues then combined the preindustrial temperature response to those climate forcings with the global response in the 20th century to volcanoes, rising greenhouse gases, and thickening pollutant hazes. In this week's issue of
Nature, they report a 5% probability that climate sensitivity is less than 1.5°C and a 95% chance that it's less than 6.2°C. That's still pretty high, but a far cry from 9°C or 11°C.

Although the ideas of rapid heating and catastrophic sea level increases make for better headlines, the fact of the matter is that changing weather patterns, loss of arctic ice, and threats to ecosystems and endangered species have always been much more likely outcomes of global warming and are just as threatening in their subtlety. These events can occur (and already have begun to occur) with only moderate increases in temperature well within the predicted values of the latest studies.

Apr 22, 2006

There's Some Good Stuff Out There

I came across a few interesting (and relevant) posts today, and while I’m not going to comment on them at length, I would encourage my readers to check them out.

  • Through his blog The Intersection, I came across Chris Mooney’s interview with New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin. You may remember Revkin from his coverage earlier this year of the NASA censorship scandal, including his reporting on the findings from The Scientific Activist that one of the key players in the scandal had lied on his resume. Although the interview focuses in a large part on Revkin’s new book, it covers a wide variety of issues, from the science of global warming to the quality of the news media’s coverage of the phenomenon.

  • Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton has been covering a story originating out of Baylor University, not far from my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. From his original post on the issue:
    Yesterday, the Baylor student newspaper printed an article that referred to the Discovery Institute as a "conservative Christian think tank". The DI, as you can imagine, didn't like that description one bit because, frankly, they've spent so many years selling the silly notion that they're not a conservative Christian think tank and it's just annoying when all that propaganda doesn't pay dividends. They fired off a letter and the Baylor paper caved in immediately and pulled the article and made a "correction".

    Although the behavior of the Discovery Institute, which is in fact a “conservative Christian think tank,” is not surprising here, what is disappointing is how easily the Baylor paper gave in. Brayton has followed up his original post with several others, so be sure to check them out.

  • Finally, Orac of Respectful Insolence has taken on a question I have often asked myself: why do so many physicians seem to so easily subscribe to the creationist philosophy? He attempts to answer the question in his first post on the subject and adds further thoughts in a second. Orac advocates teaching evolutionary biology as part of the medical curriculum. It's not a bad idea:
    So what's the solution? Certainly it won't be easy and it won't be fast, but education is the key, particularly in medical school to show future physicians that a solid understanding of evolution is not only relevant but critical to understanding human disease….

    … As far as I'm concerned, courses in evolutionary biology, in contrast, would contribute to the training of physicians far more than either courses in art or credulous courses on non-evidence-based alt-med therapies and, if I had my way, would supplant them. Training in evolution would help to prepare the next generation of physicians not only to apply the findings of evolutionary biology to improving human health and developing treatments for disease. It would also have the salutory effect of providing additional training in science and critical thinking that could innoculate budding physicians from at least some of the credulity that even the most educated person finds hard to avoid--rather than contributing to such tendencies, as medical schools are sadly beginning to do with their unskeptical treatment of alternative medicine.

Apr 20, 2006

Environmental Popularity Contest

If you had started to think that the UK wasn’t that different from the US after all, today’s Independent might make you think twice about that. In opinion pieces appearing together in today’s issue, the two British politicians—David Cameron (Conservative Party) and Gordon Brown (Labour Party)—vying to become the next British prime minister tried to out-green each other, both arguing for immediate action to counter climate change. Referring to his recent trip to an research station on an Arctic glacier, David Cameron writes:
This is one of the reasons I decided to go on a fact-finding visit with WWF to the Arctic Research Station at Ny Alesund in Norway. I want to see for myself the effects of climate change, not just to see a retreating glacier but to meet leading scientific and research experts. Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the world and we must have a much greater sense of urgency about tackling it.

There are three key elements to the approach we must take. First, we need to recognise that this is an issue that will outlast the span of any one prime minister or parliament and it needs to be dealt with on a cross-party basis. That is why the Conservatives have joined together with the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and others to produce a joint statement on a cross-party approach to climate change. Sadly, Labour has declined invitations to join this initiative. Second, we need to recognise the importance of setting clear and binding targets. The Government has set a target for 2010 which it is now unlikely to meet. It also has a longer-term target for 2050 which on current projections it has little prospect of meeting. What we need is a binding annual target that commits us to real progress and a carbon audit office to make sure that we are achieving it.

These are pretty strong words coming from a conservative politician, and one would be hard-pressed to find Democrats in the US regularly addressing the issue so aggressively. Still, his competitor Gordon Brown accuses Cameron of just paying lip service to the environmental cause, as The Independent reports:
In a pre-emptive strike last night, Mr Brown suggested that Mr Cameron's conversion to the green cause was based on spin rather than substance. He told the BBC: "The big issue on the environment is whether politicians can move beyond words to talking about the substantive policies necessary."

Challenging Mr Cameron to support the Government's climate change levy on industry, Mr Brown said: "If you want to support environmental policies you've got to support them in deeds. This means difficult decisions that require leadership. You are going to be judged in the end on the deeds, on what you have been able to do and how you can bring the rest of the world round to the policies that need to be followed." Brown aides contrasted the Chancellor's appearance on the world stage with Mr Cameron's visit to "a glacier" and the Tories' call for people to change their behaviour to help the environment with Mr Brown's plan for worldwide action.

Only time will tell how genuine Cameron really is, but the fact that both politicians are jostling over establishing their environmental credentials is surely a positive sign for the UK. This stands in stark contrast to the US—a country that arguably needs to take decisive environmental action more than any other—as President Bush continues to downplay the human contribution to global warming and to evade taking decisive action on the issue. At the same time, allegations of his administration censoring climate change research continue to emerge, even in the wake of the NASA censorship scandal, which culminated with the resignation of an administration appointee due to revelations made by The Scientific Activist. In the meantime, a recent report indicates that US greenhouse gas emissions—the largest in the world—have continued to rise in the face of increasing international concern.

Now would be as good a time as ever for environmentalism to be the popular cause of the day, and the UK seems to have the right idea here.

Apr 19, 2006

Cataloguing the Science Blogosphere

Over at Science and Politics, Coturnix has taken it upon himself to catalogue the science blogosphere, and he's doing a damn good job at it, in my opinion. His latest entry on this subject explores science blogs by category while addressing the question of whether scientists should post unpublished data on their blogs. From there, you can link to his previous work on the topic.

Irony Abounds in Upcoming Polar Research Project

Two of the areas hardest hit by global warming have been the Arctic and the Antarctic. Not surprisingly, studying the affects of global warming on these regions will be one of the primary goals of the International Polar Year (IPY)–a global initiative involving continuous study of the polar areas from March 2007-March 2009. Two of the six themes of the project are “to determine the present environmental status of the polar regions by quantifying their spatial and temporal variability” and “to quantify, and understand, past and present environmental and human change in the polar regions in order to improve predictions.”

It came as a shock, then, to find out that two oil companies would be using this same project to search for untapped oil resources in the Arctic. The Guardian reports:
British scientists are at loggerheads with US colleagues over a controversial plan to work alongside oil companies to hunt for fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic.

The US Geological Survey is lining up a project with BP and Statoil to find oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, under the auspices of a flagship scientific initiative intended to tackle global warming.

But the head of the British Antarctic Survey, which coordinates UK activity at the poles, has said he is "very uncomfortable" with the idea and has questioned its ethical and scientific justification….

…Documents on the IPY website show that BP and Statoil, a Norwegian company, are "significant consortium members" on a USGS proposal to assess "energy resources in the circumarctic area including oil, gas, coalbed methane and methane hydrates". Geologists estimate that a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic, and analysts have predicted a 21st-century goldrush to tap them as the Arctic Ocean's ice cover retreats.

Chris Rapley, the director of the British Antarctic Survey, said: "I would be very uncomfortable with a project that simply was out to log the hydrocarbon reserves of the Arctic as a geological activity. I don't think that fits very comfortably within either the scientific guidelines or the ethical underpinning of the IPY."

So, here we have a project intended to predict the consequences of global warming, and one of its activities will be to find more of the stuff that’s filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases in the first place. It doesn’t take two years of research, millions of dollars of funding, and various state-of-the-art computer models to see that this is a pretty dumb idea.

Understanding global warming won’t do us much good if we’re not willing to curb the activities that cause it. We can only hope that as findings accumulate from projects like the IPY, we will no longer be able to ignore the threat of global warming, making discrepancies like these less likely in the future.

Apr 18, 2006

Grand Rounds at Fat Doctor

The newest edition of the medical blog carnival Grand Rounds is up at Fat Doctor, and for the first time The Scientific Activist has a contribution as well. With 53 submissions, there's quite a bit of good stuff there spanning a pretty broad range.

No More Aspirin, Please

If Massachusetts were a physician, I’d have mixed feelings about visiting him or her. Sure, Dr. Massachusetts would be incredibly persistent and would do its best to make sure I left its office feeling better than when I arrived, but on the other hand if I had any sort of serious condition, I’m skeptical about how far Dr. Mass. would go to treat the underlying causes, rather than just the immediate symptoms. Massachusetts would probably be an adept surgeon, but maybe not a great family doctor.

Last week, amid great fanfare, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney signed a bill into law that would require all Massachusetts citizens to own at least a basic health insurance policy, in a program that has been likened to the standard requirement of mandatory liability insurance for all drivers. Massachusetts has been particularly proactive in health care requirements, making headlines in January when its legislature passed a law requiring Wal-Mart and other large employers to spend a minimum of 8% of payroll expenses on health benefits.

With over 40 million Americans currently without health insurance, surely mandatory insurance is a step in the right direction. Right?

Well, maybe. However, none of these regulations address any of the root causes of the U.S.’s glaring health disparities: the complex and confusing web of private insurance companies making up our market-based health care system. This legislation might provide a bit of temporary pain relief—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but its not going to cure the cancer.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacle of the U.S.’s current health care system is its inefficiency. In 2003, for example, the U.S. spent $5,635 per person on health care, far more than the next highest spender, Norway, which only shelled out $3,807 per person (these and the ensuing figures come from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). This was 15% of the U.S.’s GDP, a far higher percentage than in any other industrialized country. This comes despite the U.S. paying for only 44.4% of these expenses with public funds, much less than its peers spent.

From this data, we can see two prominent qualities of the U.S. health care system: it’s privatized, and it’s expensive. So, does all of this money buy us a better health care system? Although in the U.S. we surely have access to some of the most state-of-the art medical care available in the world, most of the data does not paint a very optimistic picture. Compared with the world’s other major industrialized powers, the U.S. has the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate. When you combine these numbers with the high rate of the uninsured, it’s clear that we’re not getting anything that great for the extra money, at least in terms of the big picture.

Despite all of the talk about “inefficient government bureaucracy,” the data demonstrates that government-funded health care is more efficient than the market-based system currently dominating American health care. One of the reasons for this is that, as I have written before, 13% of the income earned by private insurance companies goes to profit and overhead—meaning that this money does not go back into the system—compared with only 1-2% (for overhead) in government programs. Another reason is the built-in inefficiency of dealing with millions of different entities paying for health care rather than just one (the government in a single-payer system).

Not surprisingly, studies have shown that most physicians prefer a single-payer health care system. For example, a 2004 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 63.5% of Massachusetts physicians believe that a single-payer system “would provide the best care for the most people for a fixed amount of money.” Interestingly, these same physicians that overwhelmingly support a single-payer system apparently don’t think their peers do the same, with only 51.9% of those surveyed believing that the majority of physicians support a single-payer system.

Clearly, there is a need for some activism here from the medical community. Our society gives a great amount of respect to physicians, as they deserve, and it is likely that the medical community will have to become more outspoken on this issue before true universal health care becomes a viable political possibility. If a perceived lack of support in the medical community is currently holding physicians back, hopefully more studies along these same lines will give them the courage to stand up for their beliefs. Clearly it won’t be easy—especially in a political climate so hostile to anything resembling universal health care—but the need for an open and rational discussion on this issue is becoming increasingly pressing.

In the meantime, though, it looks like we can at least look forward to a steady dose of aspirin while we wait for a more substantial cure.

Apr 15, 2006

Digital Pollution

I didn’t expect that I would have much to say about the switch from analog to digital TV, but the blog Digital TV Facts is covering a story that might be of interest to the readers of The Scientific Activist:
When analog TV goes dark in 2009, millions of new set-top converter boxes will switch on. And each one will use energy—even when turned off, in most cases, because of standby power requirements.

Both Congress and the EPA have brushed aside attempts to set efficiency standards for digital TV adapters. But California has instituted its own mandatory requirement.

It shouldn’t be surprising that California is leading the push for environmentally-friendly regulations in this area. The state also leads current efforts in the US to curb greenhouse gas emissions in general, although Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been unclear on exactly how far he is willing to go in setting specific caps on emissions. In both cases, progress is being made despite intense lobbying against the regulations by the affected industries. This opposition comes in spite of some studies that have demonstrating that the planned California regulations could have a beneficial impact on the state’s economy.

Regardless, the lack of more stringent federal regulations in these cases is disappointing, and hopefully the federal government will follow California’s example.

Writing About Blogging About Science

Most of you reading this are probably already believers in science blogging, but not everyone out there is, including many in the scientific community. It would be in the best interest of the science and the scientists for that to change, though, according to a policy paper published in yesterday’s Science magazine. The report’s authors, Alison Ashlin and Richard Ladle (both coming from my academic home of Oxford University) offer an evenhanded analysis of the environmental science blogosphere, both recognizing its potential while criticizing the proliferation of inconsistent and inaccurate information.
Accurate representation of environmental science is vitally important for the current and continued support of public policy. Currently, there are roughly 400,000 weblogs featuring discussions on environmental and conservation-related issues, which makes it difficult to assess the general quality of scientific information on weblogs. To provide a snapshot of scientific representation in the blogosphere, we explored current predictions for global extinction rates as cited within 30 sites. There is still uncertainty, but the scientific consensus puts the maximum predicted rate between 74 and 150 species going extinct every day [27,000 to 55,000 per year]. Roughly 40% of the sites we examined indicated that extinctions are occurring at rates greater than 200 per day (73,000 per year). The daily extinction rates ranged from one to several thousand per day!

Although such data could lead one to disregard the blogosphere totally as inherently inaccurate, the authors present this as an example of why environmental scientists should become more involved in the area. The report describes what would basically be a top-down approach to improving the credibility of the blogosphere, with established scientists creating their own blogs and encouraging their students to do the same:
Environmental scientists should actively engage in blogging to increase the presence of informed opinions in the blogosphere. Research supervisors should encourage students to blog while providing training in science communication and dissemination. Senior scientists should set up their own high-profile weblogs to help allay fears that blogging is somewhat disreputable. Blogging should be part of a portfolio of public engagement activities, even to the extent of including blogging as part of a researcher's job specification.

Although I don’t know how likely things are to play out in this way exactly, it is clear that the involvement of more top scientists would be a good thing for the blogging community and the science in general. The article describes several roles blogs can play in environmental science, including discussion ideas and research findings, reviewing the science literature, reporting from conferences, and encouraging aspiring future scientists by reporting from the field.

Most significantly, blogging in the article is portrayed as an exciting and necessary addition to the future scientist’s collection of tools and responsibilities—a way of life, even—that will allow scientists to better engage the public and hopefully break down a few communication barriers.

Apr 13, 2006

And I Thought My Science Fair Projects Were Bad....

I may not have always had the best Science Fair projects when I was in middle school, but at least my projects were based on science, as it is generally defined. In Alabama, though, pseudoscience is apparently a winning concept, as physicist Stephen Granade reports in his family’s blog Live Granades.

While at the Alabama Science and Engineering Fair earlier this month—judging projects for an award given by a professional organization he’s affiliated with—Granade came across a display that was decidedly not scientific:
Creator or Not? Divinity vs Man — YOU DECIDE” the science fair project said. I stared at it, glad that the student wasn’t there to bear the brunt of my anger and sadness….

…The title claimed we could decide, but the project left no room for vacillation. It started with a hypothesis that “The universe was created by an intelligent designer.” It went on to make the standard big number argument, and closed with the conclusion, “The universe was created by an intelligent designer.”

Granade goes on to describe the project in more detail, as well as some of the more scientific entries in the fair, and his post is definitely worth checking out. Based on what he describes, it is unfortunate that the whole experience was overshadowed by this project. The fact that a student would enter such a project into a science fair at all is a terrible indictment on our education system and our current political culture, but that’s not even the worst part:
This isn’t science. This is a piss-poor chain of logic wearing the discarded clothes of science and strutting around in an attempt to impress. What’s worse is that this project was presented at the state level. It had to pass at least a regional science fair. Not only must the student’s “science” teacher have accepted it as a project, the regional science fair judges must have given it better-than-passing marks.

In my understanding, making it to a state science fair is a pretty decent accomplishment (my best project in middle school only made it to a regional science fair). To get there, this project would have had to withstand multiple stages of scrutiny. Although it should have been shot down as unscientific from the very beginning, the project instead passed each stage unscathed, awarded with serial promotions from one level to the next.

This begs the following question: how the hell did this happen? Were the judges somehow impressed by the project or were they afraid of getting caught up in a political controversy? Whether incompetence, intimidation, or something completely different was at play here, this is a sad state of affairs that merits further investigation.

The other question that comes to mind is whether this is indicative of a new trend, a question that so concerned Granade that he approached me to see if I had come across such a situation before. Fortunately I had not. Granade had not either, in his experience or elsewhere. Therefore, using our scientific reasoning, we can conclude that this is probably an isolated incident… for now, at least. Given the current political climate—and the gravity of the issue—I don’t think we can take anything for granted here, despite the reassuring nature of the data. The last thing we want is for middle school science fairs to become another battleground in the culture wars.

Update 15 April 2006 19:26 - I updated the post to take into account a change in the quoted material from Live Granades (a correction in the science fair project title).

Praise for Selling Out

According to a study released earlier this week, more scientists are commercializing their work that previous measures indicated. In a study funded by the pro-entrepreneurship Kauffman Foundation and performed at the University of Indiana, researchers found that a significant number of scientists funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have founded start-up biotech companies, an outcome not usually measured in assessments of commercialization of university research.

The official line from the Kauffman Foundation is that this is a good thing, as laid out in the study’s web summary:
The study by Indiana University researchers reveals that cancer scientists, in addition to commercializing their research through licensing, are starting new businesses, which largely go unrecorded by existing innovation commercialization tracking systems. In fact, more than one in four patenting National Cancer Institute (NCI) scientists within the researchers’ dataset has started a new firm. These scientist-launched start-ups are the sleeping giant of university commercialization.

“This study reinforces the critical role universities play in a country’s national innovation system, not just in the training of new scientists and accessing the best talent, but in the ease of developing and licensing technology and as a launching ground for new businesses,” said Carl Schramm, president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation….

…The economic implications of the study of approximately 1,600 NCI-funded research scientists underscores that the role universities play in the nation's innovation economy is much greater than currently understood. The study is particularly timely in relation to current federal efforts to shift funding from basic research to applied commercialization. As a result, many universities are scrambling to enhance their innovation transfer process or risk research funding cutbacks.

At present, only 20 percent of all basic research in the United States is performed by the private sector. Colleges and universities account for 60 percent of such research, with government accounting for the remaining amounts. Washington is the largest funder of basic research, paying for 57 percent of the total.

“Federal investment in university research has a much bigger impact on the nation’s economy than previously thought,” said Lesa Mitchell, vice president of Advancing Innovation at the Kauffman Foundation. “We are seeing much more commercialization coming out of universities that has not been measured.”

The report itself focuses mostly on determining the factors that lead to the commercialization of research findings and stresses the need to measure commercialization more broadly and comprehensively. The web summary focuses disproportionately on what are perceived as the broader implications of this study, namely that government funding of basic science directly benefits the economy more than originally thought, an idea that not surprisingly became the focus of the April 10th New York Times article on the study:
A new study of university scientists who received federal financing from the National Cancer Institute found that they generated patents at a rapid pace and started companies in surprisingly high numbers.

The study, the authors say, suggests that the commercial payoff for the government's support for basic research and development in the life sciences is greater than previously thought.

The paper, to be published today, comes at a time when politicians and policy makers in the United States and Europe are questioning the value of government funds invested in fundamental research. In theory, those investments should be a wise use of taxpayers' money, according to many economists, who assert that innovation must be an engine of economic growth and job creation in developed nations.

The new study, by economists at Indiana University and the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Germany, is an attempt to analyze the commercial activity of university scientists in a field where government financing of basic research has been quite generous.

Federal financing of the National Institutes of Health has not grown in the last couple of years, but it increased by two and a half times in the decade before 2005. The National Cancer Institute is the largest of the N.I.H. units, with an annual budget of $4.8 billion, and much of its spending goes to support university research.

As an added twist, The New York Times discusses the findings in the context of the stagnating budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is sensible, because the findings do demonstrate a clear economic benefit to funding basic science, although the other benefits—new treatments for medical conditions, expansion of scientific knowledge, contributing to science education—are arguably more important and more central to the mission of basic research.

Although the Times article gives lip service to the fairly obvious problems with economic-driven basic research, it essentially brushes them off instead of exploring them fully:
The entrepreneurial zeal of academics also raises concerns, like whether the direction of research is being overly influenced by the marketplace. "Are basic scientific questions being neglected because there isn't a quick path to commercialization?" said Toby E. Stuart, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Business. "No one really knows the answer to that question."

There is also the issue of elite scientists enriching themselves from research financed by taxpayers' dollars. But historically, that has not been a policy concern. Instead, steps have been taken to encourage federally financed research to move out of universities and into the marketplace — notably, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allowed universities to hold the patents on federally financed research and to license that intellectual property to industry.

"At the end of the day, without commercialization, these ideas don't find their way to people," said Anna D. Barker, deputy director of the National Cancer Institute. "Increasingly, we have scientific entrepreneurs. And that's a good thing. What we have to do is intelligently balance two considerations — to smooth the path to commercialization, but also guard against conflicts of interest that could undermine science."

These concerns, which are not addressed in the Kauffman Foundation report, deserve a more in-depth investigation. The idea of projects not seen as likely to yield profits in a timely manner going unfunded is disturbing on many levels. Already, many of the greatest threats to health in the developing world, which do not appear to present particularly profitable solutions, already do not get the attention they merit from the pharmaceutical industry, and federally-funded basic research is therefore likely to be a necessary precursor to the development of new treatments for these conditions.

On a deeper level, restricting the scope of science could have the effect of making the field less interesting and attractive to promising young students. Most importantly, it is often difficult to predict what scientific questions will turn out to be truly important in the long run, and science has traditionally functioned well as a broad net, catching ideas and findings that initially don’t seem important but only display their significance later, sometimes even causing paradigm shifts or spurring completely new fields of investigation.

Interestingly, this latest study also lends weight to a point I have stressed before by demonstrating a very tangible example of indirect subsidization of the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. By funding basic research, which forms the starting point for the work performed in these industries and—as demonstrated by this study—is sometimes translated directly into new start-up companies, the federal government in effect provides a large amount of support to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, but rather that it’s important to keep this idea in mind in terms of determining what level of access the public deserves to these services in return for its financial support.

Although the Kauffmann Foundation report and the subsequent press coverage could have gone to greater lengths to explore the negative impacts of focusing on the profitability of science, the study should in the end be seen as a positive force for influencing a broader base of support for basic research. As the growth of federal research funding has slowed so dramatically in recent years, and as federal funding for embryonic stem cell research remains banned—two factors pushing the U.S. worryingly close to losing it edge in global science—the mounting evidence that demonstrates the multifaceted benefits of funding basic science should be embraced.

Apr 12, 2006

Tangled Bank #51 at Discovering Biology in a Digital World

I obviously haven’t done any science writing for the last couple of weeks, but plenty of other people have. For a great sampling from around the web, check out this week’s edition of the Tangled Bank, cleverly organized at Discovering Biology in a Digital World as a virtual tour through Seattle.

The Scientific Activist Returns!

It appears that my time in India has come to an all-too-soon end, and after a long hiatus The Scientific Activist is ready to return in full force. In addition to the ongoing commentary on science and politics, you can also expect some posts about my vacation in India and some of my thoughts on the experience. I’ll also drop a cryptic note here about some big changes that may take place sometime soon at The Scientific Activist, although you’ll have to stay tuned to find out what form they'll take.

In the meantime, I’ll personally be struggling with how I deal with the change in scenery from this…

…to this….

OK, I’ll admit that it’s not that bad. The second photo was taken in Oxford, but it was a month and a half ago, after a rare late season snowstorm. Still, the bright sun and occasionally hundred-degree temperatures in India were a welcome break from Oxford's generally dreary weather. To see more photos from India, like the above from a rooftop café in Jodhpur, you can check out my online photo gallery from the trip, or you can browse through my Zoto account.