Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

How COVID-19 impacts public education in low income communities

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By Brittany Sincox, B.S.

Source: Pixabay

In the midst of a global pandemic, how students are educated has drastically changed. While zoom meetings, google classrooms, and online exams may seem accessible during this high-technology age, COVID-19 has created even more educational barriers for low-income students. In low income neighborhoods in Washington D.C., school administrators struggled to get online access for all students for nearly six weeks. Across the entirety of D.C., 11% of students do not have access to high speed internet at home. However, a 2019 general household study revealed an astonishing difference between internet access in DC’s wealthiest and poorest wards. Ward 8 has the lowest median income at $31,954 and only 46% of Ward 8 homes have high speed internet access, while 86% of homes in Ward 3 with a median income of $122,680 have high speed internet. While adapting to online learning presents a challenge for teachers and students everywhere, these issues with attendance and technology accessibility are not as prevalent in higher income neighborhoods. 

Aside from technological access issues, teachers are increasingly worried about the holistic impact on a low income student’s life after converting to online schools. Even when students have access to online school platforms, attendance is less than 50% in low income schools according to teachers surveyed by the Washington Teachers Union. Some teachers reported that their students work in restaurants or landscaping to aid families during the financial crisis COVID-19 has caused, leading to less time in classrooms and higher infection risk to these families. Food scarcity is yet another area of concern. While Food and Nutrition Services offers a “Pandemic EBT” program similar to SNAP benefits for children on free and reduced lunch programs, DC didn’t begin distributing benefits to these families until May 22nd, more than 2 months after schools were initially shut down. Additionally, special education and ESL teachers have concerns for the lack of individualized attention and schoolwork help these students are able to receive due to conversion to online platforms. Nearly all areas of student life have been impacted due to COVID-19, and low income families are being stretched thin to accommodate this new era of online learning. 

With a second wave of COVID-19 infections and lockdowns becoming imminent, schools need to prepare for continued online learning. However, the cost of the pandemic on schools alone makes it difficult to further invest in advancing online education platforms. estimates that Washington D.C. faces an additional $24 million in costs for the 2020-2021 school year due to time lost this previous school year, not including the potential need to supply materials like laptops/tablets to student to access online learning easily. Teachers are adapting to online learning without increased funding by increasing community through online platforms such as Facebook groups, Reddit forums, and online teaching resources. The goal is to share tips, lesson plans, and train each other through technological hurdles. However, teachers are quickly becoming overwhelmed and burnt out as these low-cost methods of distance teaching simply aren’t enough. Some schools have considered adding specific positions for distance learning management and buying better online resources for students, but with an economic recession on the horizon and a greater need for public school funding one can only ask: where will this money come from?

            D.C.’s Mayor Bowser proposed a $15 million budget cut to the metropolitan police department for the upcoming fiscal year following recent protests from the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement is calling for reallocation of police funding to public schools, healthcare, and housing opportunities for black and low income communities. This has been partially achieved in Los Angeles, when the LA Unified’s Board of Education cut $25 million from school police forces to instead support the needs of black and low income students in the upcoming school year. However, it is clear that the current budget reallocations will not be able to meet the high projected costs of COVID-19 on public education. It is difficult to foresee how a simultaneous global pandemic and historic civil rights movement will continue to impact the educations of low income students, but it is urgent for schools and local governments to adapt and enact new policies to increase accessibility to prevent these students from falling further behind. 

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 10, 2020 at 3:52 pm

Science Policy Around the Web July 7th, 2020

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By Mohor Sengupta, PhD

Source: Pixabay

Unless it’s done carefully, the rise of telehealth could widen health disparities.

Among the many changes COVID-19 is set to bring to our society, the widespread practice of telehealth is one the most important. Although medical practitioners have been considering the benefits of telehealth for a while, the pandemic has pushed much of the medical community directly into practicing it, and telehealth has surged from 8% of Americans in December to 29% in May having used it. To the uninitiated, telehealth is a remote form of consultation with doctors by digital means. It foregoes in person visits to the clinic. Medical care, advice, clinician contact, interventions, reminders, monitoring and remote admissions are all possible via telehealth. 

In terms of the pandemic, keeping patients out of doctors’ offices and away from in-patient visits helps contain the spread of the coronavirus. Although insurance companies that are fully reimbursing for telehealth services say that they’ll do so only as long as the pandemic lasts, the need to socially distance might become a new normal, making telehealth a medical feature that might be here to stay. 

While the benefits for telehealth are obvious, it may have some unwanted consequences too. It is especially important to consider these if telehealth becomes a permanent feature of the healthcare landscape. Since telehealth implementation depends on information technology, the most basic thing needed for it to function properly is for the beneficiaries to have an internet connection. The pandemic has highlighted the fact that rural areas in the United States have struggled to keep up with regular classes without internet access. Even in urban areas, marginalized groups without adequate employment, health insurance and digital resources can face problems accessing the benefits of telehealth. 

Patients from these marginalized groups can fall into one of the several minority communities, including racial and ethnic minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals and those belonging to sexual and gender minority groups. Patients from these groups already face discrimination during in-person visits, which leads them to lose trust in healthcare systems. Telehealth may mean bigger challenges to them in navigating the system altogether. 

Part of the problem could be the absence of in-person conversation with the clinician or healthcare provider. Effective communication is key to both sides being on the same page about a medical advice. Minority populations already face cultural and linguistic barriers in healthcare. For many people who are not able to communicate in English, telehealth could be an impediment toward making their doctor fully cognizant of their needs, in the absence of in-person experience. 

On the part of the healthcare providers, it is important to keep the guards up against their implicit biases on race, ethnicity and educational status of the patient. A virtual environment might just be less conducive to such vigilance. 

Finally, telehealth uses algorithms to predict health patterns of people. With minority populations being underrepresent in studies and in clinical research, these predictive algorithms cannot fully account for the complex health behaviors and patterns among several different groups of people who don’t fall into the broad category which was used to come up with the algorithms in the first place.   

(Matthew Clair, Brian W. Clair, and Walter K. Clair, STAT)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 7, 2020 at 10:36 am

Science Policy Around the Web July 2nd, 2020

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By Mary Weston, PhD

Source: Wikimedia

The line is forming for a COVID-19 vaccine. Who should be at the front?

With the possibility of COVID vaccines becoming available as soon as next fall, the debate over who will receive the initial doses has begun. Last week, a committee that provides vaccine recommendations to the CDC met to deliberate vaccine prioritization. 

Those risking their health for others in essential roles, such as high-risk health care workers and first responders, will receive the earliest vaccine doses. However, for subsequent groups, the ethics surrounding vaccine prioritization are difficult and complicated. Prioritization is a balance between what is best for society and protecting the health of an individual says Dr. Bruce Gellin, former director of the US National Vaccine Program and current lead at the nonprofitSabin Vaccine Institute

Who else should get these early doses? The virus has disproportionately affected the elderly, arguing they should be high on the list. However, older people typically have the weakest immune response to vaccines and ensuring those who get the early doses develop immunity is important. Alternatively, perhaps groups working in professions/environments that drastically increase their infection risk should be vaccinated early. However, these groups tend to be younger and healthier, such as prisoners, meat packers, and grocery store workers. Additionally, there is the complex issue surrounding the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on certain ethnic groups.  Should they get special consideration? What about those who are poor, who likely have less access to healthcare and live in more crowded conditions, or teachers that work indoors with big groups of children?

One conclusion made by the committee is that pregnant women, who typically are last to get a new vaccine because of concerns of possible harm to the fetus, may be high on the list due to an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. 

Both the CDC and the WHO are rapidly working to develop their own schemes for vaccine distribution. Initial outlines indicate they are listing high-risk healthcare workers as the first group. The WHO’s plan has subsequent tiers involve prioritize select groups including general health care workers, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with co-morbidities that increase their COVID-19 risk. However, these are just guidelines and many of the details/classifications need to be established. Additionally, since data surrounding COVID-19 changes so rapidly, these recommendations could be modified to reflect current knowledge.

Vaccine prioritization debates are challenging and the “right” answer is difficult to determine. These conversations have just started and will likely continue until vaccines are widely available. 

(Jon Cohen, Science Magazine)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 2, 2020 at 6:17 pm

Science Policy Around the Web June 30th, 2020

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By Maria Disotuar, (MPH, PhD)

Image from Zeiss Microscopy on Flickr

CRISPR gene editing in human embryos wreaks chromosomal mayhem

The CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system has been known to produce unwanted DNA deletions, otherwise known as “off target” mutations. These mutations typically occur far from the target site and are generally easily detected via genome-wide assays. Recently, three separate laboratories found that CRISPR can cause unwanted mutations near or at the target site of human embryos. Previously, these types of observations had only been reported in mouse embryos and human cell lines. 

Using CRISPR to modify human embryos is a controversial topic. Changes to human DNA could be passed down to other generations and unwanted mutations could be catastrophic. In fact, it was not too long ago that a Chinese scientist sparked international outrage for using CRISPR to create the first gene-edited human babies. Yet, globally, scientists agree that a better understanding of the gene-editing technology could revolutionize medicine in situations where there are no other medical alternatives. 

Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute in London was the first to report that 22% of the 18 genome-edited embryos in her lab had unwanted mutations in close proximity to the target-site. The mutations consisted of  large deletions of thousands of DNA bases. Not long after, Dieter Egli of Columbia University in New York City reported that when trying to correct a mutation for blindness in the lab, about 50% of the embryos either lost large fragments of the chromosome or completely lost the chromosome of the target-site. Finally, Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland reported similar results with mutations leading to loss of more than 100 base pairs in the embryos. 

Although the studies have not yet been peer-reviewed, they highlight the potential dangers of CRISPR technology due to a lack of understanding in the scientific community. Importantly, from a bioethics perspective, these studies underscore the need to tread cautiously as we move forward with CRISPR gene-editing technology.   

(Heidi Ledford, Nature) 

World’s second-deadliest Ebola outbreak ends in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been battling the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in the world. In less than two years, the virus infected more than 3000 people and killed 66% of these individuals. Despite the political instability and civil unrest of the region, there was significant progress in vaccination and treatment programs. This was the first time a vaccine for Ebola was widely distributed in an affected region. In fact, 300,000 people received the vaccine if they had been in close proximity to someone with Ebola. As a result, more than 80% of individuals vaccinated did not contract the virus or they developed a very mild case of the disease. Importantly, two antibody-based drugs were proven to reduce deaths in clinical trials. Thus, individuals who were hospitalized soon after being infected were able to receive the drugs if they gave consent. 

On June 1st, Equateur, a northern region of the country reported a new Ebola outbreak of 18 people and now local leaders are hoping to use the same tools and strategies to combat the virus. However, from a geographical and economical standpoint,  the region is difficult to access by car and the economic hardships lead people from the region to travel to other cities to engage in trade practices. Officials worry that this will lead to a wider and faster spread of the virus. Additionally, due to the coronavirus outbreak there is concern that researchers and health professionals stationed in the country have shifted their attention to fighting Covid-19. 

(Amy Maxmen, Nature

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 30, 2020 at 10:15 am

Science Policy Around the Web June 25th, 2020

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By Kellsye Fabian, PhD

Image from Pixabay

COVID-19 cancels charity galas and walks. Science is paying the price

Foundations and nonprofit organizations that fund biomedical research in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries are reporting record revenue decline. Fundraising events such as galas, sponsored walks, Broadway partnerships, and even “Fill the Boot” drives, in which U.S. firefighters ask passersby to support medical research by dropping donations into a boot, have all been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonprofit scientific organizations only account for 5% overall U.S. research funding but they play a critical role in supporting small, high-risk pilot studies. 

The loss of revenue has forced many groups to cut staff and delay, cut, or even rescind grants to researchers. In the U.S., organizations like Susan G. Komen (the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research) and the Muscular Dystrophy Association have furloughed or laid off employees and tabled plans to award new grants. The American Cancer Society, which has experienced a $200 million drop in revenue, has laid off employees and could temporarily cut research funding by half. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which anticipates $60 million shortfall in 2020, has given 78 of their 198 grantees a 15% funding cut. On the other hand, some organizations, such as the American Heart Association (AHA), have been fortunate. Although AHA is also experiencing a drop in donations, the group hasn’t had to lay people off or cancel grants, however, it has postponed awarding new rounds of grants. 

In the U.K., the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) is reporting 38% drop in fundraising income. The deficit has forced member groups to withdraw or defer grants. 

For example, Cancer Research UK, which funds half of the noncommercial cancer research in the UK, predicts 20-25% drop in income this year and has decreased its research funding by £44 million. Cancer Research UK will have to make deeper cuts if charities don’t receive more support from the government. During the pandemic, the U.K. government has provided financial aid to nonprofits but none of it is available to medical research and charities that support commercial R&D. 

Financial support from nonprofit scientific organizations allow researchers to test high-risk ideas which could later enable them to apply for larger grants from government funders. Many of these foundations also support research and help develop new treatments for rare diseases that other funders overlook. The crisis that these groups face could have long-lasting effect on the next generation of research.

(Eli Cahan with reporting by Cathleen O’Grady, Science)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 25, 2020 at 2:31 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web June 23rd, 2020

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By Hannah King, PhD

Image by James Osborne from Pixabay 

Racial bias skews algorithms widely used to guide care from heart surgery to birth, study finds

A new study has provided further insight into the racial biases embedded in many algorithms that doctors and hospitals use to inform patient care. This research, published in the New England Journal of Medicune, examined in greater depth than ever before the use of algorithms that “correct” their output on the basis of a patients’ race.

This research cataloged the use of these algorithms across many disciplines of medicine, from kidney stones to giving birth. An algorithm used to predict heart failure automatically predicts a higher risk in any “non-Black” patient, while an algorithm for predicting kidney failure lowers the risk scores of Black patients, potentially reducing their likelihood of accessing appropriate care.

These algorithms are “widely used and have a substantial impact on patient care,” according to Brian Powers, a physician and researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in this research. He urges for further investigation to determine the consequences of these algorithmic biases in the accuracy of their predictions and how they are used in practice. While he believes that in some cases the adjustment for race in these algorithms may improve patient care and be a “tool for addressing inequities” they may also exacerbate these inequities, and we do not currently have the data to address these possibilities. Some hospitals and professional societies have begun to take note of these biases, and have stopped using these racially-tinged algorithms, although others are resisting this change.

The study’s authors stress that these algorithms were not designed to promote racial biases. They were instead likely developed by well-meaning individuals relying on data from out-of-date research that ignores factors other than race, such as socio-economic status, that could impact the health outcomes measured. 

This research also feeds into the growing question of the utility in medicine of viewing race as a biological construct, instead of a social one. As David Shumway Jones of Harvard Medical School, and the senior author of the study, says – “for the medical community, this is an example of structural racism and is one area we can address quickly and decisively.”

(Sharon Begley, Stat News)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 23, 2020 at 4:03 pm

Adapting NIH Research Policies During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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By Caroline Pantazis, PhD

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has impacted the trajectory of scientific research across the United States. Many research laboratories have reduced their workforce or completely shut down, putting research projects on temporary hold for an uncertain length of time. Throughout the scientific research community, experiments have had to be delayed or canceled, forcing scientists at every level to be flexible in their research, career, and funding timelines. While the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the scientific community remains unknown, it is apparent that it has already substantially impacted research productivity and output

In particular, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated stress over receiving and maintaining research funding. Most scientists rely on some form of external funding to support their research, which often requires data in initial applications and follow-up progress reports. Funding agencies like the NIH place deadlines on application submission, at which time all components of the grant must be submitted for review (for example). With the transition to teleworking, many scientists may have to balance family and work, making it challenging to support laboratory personnel and research remotely, care for themselves and their families, and meet grant application deadlines. The inability to perform key laboratory experiments and produce data further complicates the grant submission process, as a lack of data can highlight that scientific projects are not feasible or progressing as planned. Given these unprecedented circumstances, new research policies have been greatly needed to accommodate scientists and their work. 

NIH has adapted its policies on research funding and management to a changing research climate during the coronavirus pandemic. These newly developed policies emphasize safety and flexibility for researchers when trying to meet grant submission deadlines. Deadlines for institutional training grants were extended by several weeks beyond the application due dates. Importantly, NIH has stressed that no justification is necessary for late submissions (see PowerPoint Presentation here). In addition, the NIH Office of Extramural Research has put forth information for applicants and recipients of NIH funding that further reiterates flexibility during this time, including in project extensions and unanticipated costs, extensions to timelines for fellowship training and awards, and extensions to the early stage investigator eligibility for awards.    

With these extensions come the challenges of both how to best coordinate scientific review panels composed of large groups of scientists to discuss applications and how to incorporate late applications into established review cycle timelines. Given that travel and meetings have been restricted to only mission-critical activities, peer review meetings also cannot be held in-person as before the pandemic. NIH outlined several guidelines and considerations for peer reviewers that encouraged review criteria to adapt to the changing research landscape and restricted training opportunities. These issues include that “the environment may not be functional or accessible; …animal welfare may be affected, if institutions are closed temporarily; …travel for key personnel or trainees to attend scientific conferences, meeting of consortium leadership, etc., may be postponed temporarily”. As a result, greater flexibility has also been encouraged during the grant review process to recognize the obstacles facing both scientists’ laboratory projects and training opportunities at this time. 

Several institutes have also developed funding opportunities that are mission-specific and/or support research related to COVID-19 (see here). These funding announcements allow scientists with skills relevant to COVID-19 research to develop projects to better understand the impact of the disease. These include researching the secondary health effects (social, behavioral, and economic) of COVID-19 or the impact of the virus on pre-existing health disparities in vulnerable populations. Other awards have been put forward to focus on better understanding the immune responses elicited by SARS-CoV-2 infection, processes by which protection against the virus may be conferred, and potential barriers to serological testing. As a result, NIH research policies have sought to address the pressing need to mobilize scientific research around understanding COVID-19 pathology, prevention, and treatment. 

Finally, NIH has offered operating guidance for committees overseeing appropriate use of research animals (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees; IACUCs) or protective measures for human studies (Institutional Review Boards; IRBs). These accredited entities are essential components of research facilities to ensure that all NIH-funded research conducted with human participants or laboratory animals is documented and approved before experiments begin. For research on laboratory animals, the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) has indicated that the six-month routine IACUC inspections may extend 30 days beyond this window and that IACUCs can determine the “best means for conducting the facility inspections”, which are normally conducted in-person. Also, committees can use teleconferencing for meetings or reduce the number of meetings in accordance with social distancing measures. For NIH-funded clinical research conducted with human participants, NIH encourages adopting measures to limit human-to-human contact, including reduced in-person study visits, use of virtual meetings in lieu of study visits, limited travel, and eliminating the gathering of large groups of people. As in other instances, project extensions may be possible, as will accommodations for unexpected costs that may result from adopting safety precautions.

Consequently, the tremendous impact of the coronavirus on the scientific research community has heavily influenced existing NIH research policies over the past several months and catalyzed the creation of new ones. Importantly, although some current policies are outlined here, NIH continues to update their research policies and funding announcements on the NIH Grants & Funding website. Thus far, these policies have facilitated greater flexibility in research funding and management during a particularly challenging time, but they are also rapidly evolving to address this ever-changing public health crisis.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 19, 2020 at 12:58 pm

Science Policy Around the Web June 16th, 2020

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By Ken Farabaugh, PhD

Image by ColiN00B from Pixabay

Lab-grown cells mimic crucial moment in embryo development

Human embryos take a huge leap in their third week of development, when the homogeneous ball of cells folds in on itself to create a multi-layered structure in a process called gastrulation. However, this process has not really been observed, because of the ethical boundaries that prevent human embryos from being grown in a laboratory setting beyond 14 days after fertilization. A research group at Cambridge, in collaboration with a group in the Netherlands, have just reported the creation of a new model in which embryonic stem cells grown in culture can undergo a process similar to gastrulation after just 72 hours post-fertilization.

The process begins with a cluster of about 400 human embryonic stem cells. The major breakthrough came in treating these cells with a chemical Chiron, a multi-purpose chemical inhibitor and activator of various cellular signaling pathways, which accelerated cellular development. The cells then form 3D structures and spontaneously mimic gastrulation. This procedure has an approximately 70% success rate. Although cells mimic the gastrulation process that naturally occurs around day 18-21 of embryonic development after only three days, these gastruloids collapse in on themselves no more than four days after their formation. The most exciting finding according to this research group was the observation of pockets of cells that form along the head-to-tail axis on either side of the structure that would become the spinal cord.

Although these lab-made gastruloids do not have the ability to differentiate into human embryos, scientists envision a day not far off where gastruloids synthesized in the lab can have beating hearts, or grow rudimentary organs. This obviously would create ethical dilemmas, but researchers also argue that these results could lead to a greater understanding of early development and diseases that arise at that time, such as congenital heart defects, scoliosis, or spina bifida.

(David Cyranoski, Nature)

Huge open-access journal deal inked by University of California and Springer Nature

The University of California announced the largest open-access deal ever signed with Springer Nature, in which all research articles published in Nature or the 148 sister journals of the Nature Publishing Group will be published open-access as long as a corresponding author is affiliated with the university, beginning in 2022. UC was able to secure this deal because of the approximately 50,000 articles published with a UC-affiliated co-author (~10% of all research articles published in 2019), 22,000 would have been eligible for open-access with a UC corresponding author, and Springer Nature published about 2500 (11% of the 22,000 eligible articles), representing a significant source of material and money.

Publishers argue that the move to open-access for all journals would only hurt authors, as the cost to publish would become prohibitively high. Although some journals only charge a subscription fee, the average author fee to publish in a hybrid journal, one which charges both an author fee and a subscription fee, was $2900 in 2018; to publish in Nature Communications, an open-access journal, required an author fee of $5380.

Several other institutions have made progress in the bid to make all research open-access; MIT recently ended its negotiations with Elsevier over an open-access impasse, but Elsevier reached agreements with California State University and Carnegie Mellon University. By having such large research institutions take the lead in the reform of science publication, others will be sure to follow, and open-access may soon become the norm.

(Jeffrey Brainard, Science)

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June 18, 2020 at 11:26 am

Science Policy Around the Web June 16th, 2020

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By Ben Wolfson, PhD

Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay 

Big tech companies back away from selling facial recognition to police. That’s progress.

In the past two weeks, technology companies IBM and Microsoft have announced that they would no longer sell facial recognition technology, and Amazon implemented a one-year moratorium of their own facial recognition software. These policy changes come in the wake of widespread protests across America in response to police violence.

Facial recognition technology has long been known to come with built-in racial and gender biases, falsely identifying African-American and Asian faces 10 to 100 times more frequently than Caucasian faces. Facial recognition programs have also been demonstrated to be worse at identifying women than men, and to misidentify older adults more frequently than middle aged. These errors are likely due to algorithmic bias resulting from the data sets that were used to train the algorithms.

In addition to calls for greater police oversight, these policy changes also come as lawmakers requested more information concerning the surveillance tactics available and employed by domestic law enforcement. It is possible, and hopeful, that this act and company’s willingness to wait for regulation will result in greater privacy rights for individuals, although some believe that company’s expect Congress to create legislation without outright banning facial recognition, a step many organizers believe is necessary due to the dangers of facial recognition being legal at all.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 16, 2020 at 2:56 pm

The importance of science literacy and “education through science”

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By Jayasai Rajagopal, PhD

Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay 

Science plays an important part in guiding the decision making of both the citizenry and policy makers. However, science can often be misunderstood and misrepresented, and the general public has difficulty in identifying these errors. Representations of scientific findings in the media are often taken out of context or only partially reported. Further, those without expertise in a subject can easily misconstrue the meaning of scientific studies. With the rapid increase in the use of social media, such misinformation spreads more quickly than ever. One of the primary causes of scientific misunderstanding is the lack of scientific literacy amongst the general population.

Before we move on, let us precisely define what we mean by scientific literacy and how that differs from science literacy. Arizona State University professor Jane Maienschein clarifies that science literacy encompasses technical knowledge of science while scientific literacy “emphasizes scientific ways of knowing and the process of thinking critically and creatively about the natural world.” A more recent publication by PISA identifies three major requirements to be considered scientifically literate: the ability to explain phenomena scientifically, evaluate and design scientific enquiry, and interpret data and evidence scientifically. Thus, scientific literacy is essentially a way of thinking and understanding that is consistent with the scientific process.

Consider a case study where a lack of scientific literacy led to tangible negative consequences. The famous case of Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet publication tying autism to the use of an MMR vaccine has been disproven by many subsequent studies. Wakefield’s work came under further ethical questioning due to his fraudulent research practices and he was discredited. Despite its flaws, this study has been championed by anti-vaccination movements and led to a deterioration of vaccine compliance. Between 1996 and 2004, the vaccination rate in Britain fell from 92% to 80%, eventually leading to measles receiving an endemic status in 2008. While there has been some recovery in recent times, outbreaks of various diseases including measles have occurred as recently as 2019 in the US and the UK. Due to a general lack of understanding of why the study was flawed and the subsequent scientific record contradicting the finding, diseases which should be easier to manage are still a public health concern.

How do these problems perpetuate? Prominent scientific educators Scheufele and Krause identify the problem at three levels: individual, group, and social. At the individual level, a lack of scientific literacy makes it very difficult to identify scientific misinformation, which increases the spread of that misinformation as individuals repeat it and post it across social media. Additionally, individuals are limited by the extent of their experiences. Thus, they filter information through their own subjective lens which can lead to vastly different interpretations of the same data, even among those who are scientifically literate. At the level of the group, ideas which are often repeated tend to become accepted as widespread belief, especially in the age of social media. This tends to lead to a groupthink where large groups tend to follow the same logic even when contradicted by actual facts. At the social level, societal or political pressures can lead to certain beliefs becoming widely accepted based on how they are presented in media and social media.. Finally, for policymakers, scientific literacy is doubly important. Policy decisions made based on bad or inconsistent science can be extremely harmful. At minimum\, this can lead to overregulation and stifle development. At worst, policy decisions can threaten the health of many people and the planet itself. A clear example of this is the active de-regulation of environmental protections which strongly disagrees with established science.

Can this problem be fixed? Yes, but it requires a paradigmatic shift in our understanding of scientific education. Holbrook and Rannikmae outline the approach. Instead of focusing scientific education on teaching the facts of science, the focus should instead be on scientific thinking. Science is not something that is taught in a vacuum, and so must be considered within the entire enterprise of education. The goal of education is not to just provide theoretical knowledge, but produce a thoughtful and productive citizenry with useful practical knowledge. Thus, just gaining knowledge of scientific facts is insufficient as education across subjects must harmonize. Further, instead of focusing on just the “core issues” of science, focus should be placed on topics of socio-economic relevance, which may be regionally different. This allows for the building of scientific literacy on relevant topics and also focusing on the personal and social aspects of education. Thus, the goal should be to “educate through science” rather than teach “science through education.” This goal can be implemented within classrooms from the primary education to undergraduate levels by requiring classes that focus on scientific literacyimproving textbooks, and focusing instruction on relevant culture examples

By transitioning the way we think about scientific education and implementing the previously recommended practices, we can increase scientific literacy.  As the use of rigorous inquiry increases, so will the ability of people to critically and productively engage with science for both social discussion and policy making. So, scientific education should evolve to increase scientific literacy and increase public trust in science. Increased scientific literacy would enable a citizenry that is able to better understand the importance of scientific discoveries and reduce the spread of scientific misinformation. 

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 12, 2020 at 11:01 am