Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Archive for July 2014

Science Policy Around the Web – July 25, 2014

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By: Jennifer L. Plank, Ph.D.

photo credit: Gates Foundation via photopin cc

photo credit: Gates Foundation via photopin cc

 A Call to Fight Malaria One Mosquito at a Time by Altering DNA

Two recent publications discuss the possibility of genetically engineering mosquitoes to reduce transmission of malaria to susceptible populations using CRISPR. Despite the potential positive implications of the experiments, several negative results may occur. First, completing the experiments may not be as straight-forward as anticipated. Additionally, genetically engineering an entire species may have disastrous consequences for the ecosystem. Therefore, policies will need to be implemented to address the potential negative concerns prior to beginning the large-scale experiment. (Carl Zimmer)

 

The Women’s Health Gap That Must Be Closed

An unfortunate statistic: African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer but are less likely to be diagnosed with it than white women. Two potential causes for this discrepancy is the lack of available health coverage and lack of education about breast cancer and preventative medication for many African-American women. The Affordable Care Act addresses the first concern; health coverage, including preventative coverage, is now more widely available. The second issue is harder to address. This blog post calls for action by health care providers and community groups to improve the awareness of the risks, importance of preventive medicine, and the availability of preventative medicine. (Thomas Duncan)

 

Point/Counterpoint: Sex and Basic Science. A Title IX Position

In May, Drs. Janine Clayton and Francis Collins published a comment in Nature outlining future policies that will be implemented by the NIH regarding the use of both sexes in basic research studies, including model animals and cell lines. Here, a point/counterpoint has been published to address the pros and cons of such a policy. (Kathryn Sandberg, Joseph G. Verbalis, Gina L.C. Yosten, and Willis K. Samson)

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July 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 18, 2014

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By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.

photo credit: x-ray delta one via photopin cc

 

Maintaining the prestige of US research and innovation

In the face of ever-increasing global competition in science and technology innovations, Congress requested that the National Academies develop a way to measure the impact of research on society in efforts to effectively prioritize Federal spending. In the pre-publication of that report, now available online, the study committee repeatedly highlights three “crucial pillars of the research system:” a strong, talented workforce, adequate and dependable (emphasis added) resources and world-class basic research in all major areas (emphasis added) of science. The committee stresses the importance of understanding the larger picture of US research, in all of its complexities, rather than using one, or a few, metrics to guide federal-level funding decisions. It is impossible to predict where the next transformative innovation will come from; therefore, limiting funding to one sector in favor of others may have unintentional consequences. Furthermore, the committee suggests that using metrics like the flow of knowledge within a scientific field and international comparison of innovation will help maximize the federal budget resources. (National Research Council)

Should research fraud be criminalized?

In a “Head to Head” article published in the British Medical Journal this week, two researchers debated the question, “Should research fraud be a crime?” Dr. Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, the chair of the Center for Global Child Health at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto argued for such action; Dr. Julian Crane, the director of the Wellington Asthma Research Group at the University of Otago Wellington in New Zealand, argued against criminalization. At the core of the debate is the fact that PNAS published a review of the 2,047 abstracts that have been retracted from PubMed since 1977. Of the retracted abstracts, 67.4% were due to scientific misconduct, which equates to roughly one in every 18,234 published abstracts being retracted because of misconduct. Dr. Bhutta argues that scientific misconduct can have large negative consequences on human health, citing the damage of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent vaccine study. Yet, he states, there is little in place to deter such behavior other than dismissal from research positions and academic shaming. Arguing against criminalization, Dr. Crane believes that criminalizing research is a bad idea and would only erode trust. Supporting this point, he quoted philosopher Onora O’Neill, “criminalizing research fraud would not improve trust—it would undermine it…[scientifc fraud] is much better prevented by transparency.” (Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News)

Congress questions CDC about recent safety lapses

This has been a rough few months for the CDC. First, scientists in Atlanta moved active anthrax from a high containment facility to a less secure one, mistakenly thinking the samples were inactivated. Then, two weeks ago, the CDC accidentally shipped flu vaccines that were contaminated with avian influenza to the USDA. Most recently, samples of smallpox, dating to the 1950s, were found on the NIH campus in Bethesda; samples of the eradicated disease are only supposed to exist at the CDC in Atlanta, and a Russian research facility. Because of this recent string of incidents, Congress convened an investigative committee to see what action Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC since 2009, was taking to address these matters. This is not the first time Congress has investigated the CDC’s safety measures, and Dr. Frieden acknowledged that he and the agency had failed to see “the pattern” of safety lapses that is now evident. While the immediate issues with contamination and safety are being addressed, the CDC has ceased operations in its bioterrorism and influenza laboratories, and stopped shipments from other CDC laboratories. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Jim Thompson)

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July 18, 2014 at 5:49 pm

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Science – It’s Not Just for Scientists!

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By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.

Science, technology, engineering and math, i.e. STEM, topics permeate everyone’s daily lives, not just the people who work in STEM-related fields. Therefore, it is imperative to have effective science communication; informed discourse between the people who conduct the research and those whose lives are impacted by the research. The importance of childhood vaccines, the impact of climate change and the implications of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are just a few recent science-related topics captured in national and international headlines. There has been a push in recent years, as evidenced by articles published in scientific journals like PNAS and Cell1-3, to understand the science of science communication. The goal of these studies is facilitating more effective communication between scientists and the general public.

In the age of the Internet, information can travel across the world in the blink of an eye. Yet, there are several challenges influencing the quality of science-related discussions1. First, a recent survey conducted by the National Science Foundation indicates that one third (33%) of respondents did not correctly grasp the concept of probability, and only 18% of respondents could correctly describe the components of a scientific study. Second, the rapid pace at which scientific advances are made further compounds the difficulty the general public has in keeping up with the potential dangers or policy implications of the findings. Finally, the general public is now more likely to turn to the Internet for information about scientific issues, rather than more traditional outlets, such as newspapers and television, which, in the past, were key sources for disseminating science-related news.

One naïve answer to these challenges is for scientists to put more effort into conveying knowledge to the general public (e.g. more museum exhibits or STEM-related web sites). However, this ignores the growing body of research that highlights it is not necessarily what scientists are saying that needs to change, it is how the topics are discussed that needs improving2. A 2013 PNAS article highlights certain tasks that will, if accomplished, address this shortcoming in science communication3. First, the science relevant to the discussion or decision being made must be identified. Then, the scientist(s) needs to understand what the gaps in knowledge are in order to develop communication tools that address those gaps. Finally, there needs to be a way to evaluate the effectiveness of the communication, with the idea of retooling the discussion to meet any unaddressed needs.

There are numerous resources available to scientists to help accomplish the tasks outlined above, and facilitate more productive communication with the general public. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers traveling workshops to assist scientists with communicating complex concepts to general audiences. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University, takes the unique approach of offering improvisation workshops, among several other programs, to help scientists become more confident public speakers. Carl Safina succinctly summarizes the importance of communicating science in a 2012 article for American Physical Society News, “If scientists decide not to engage, less-informed policy makers, pressured by less-objective advocates, will make decisions anyway. They’ll often do so without the benefit of the best advice they might have gotten, or without anyone arguing on behalf of the facts.4” So please, scientists, go forth and communicate!

 

1. Scheufele, D. A. Communicating science in social settings. 2013 PNAS. Vol. 110, p. 14040

2. Cormick, C. and Romanach, L. M. Segmentation studies provide insights to better understanding attitudes towards science and technology. 2014 Cell. Vol. 32, p. 114.

3. Fischhoff, B. The sciences of science communication. 2013 PNAS. Vol. 111, p. 14033.

4. Safina, C. Why communicate science? 2012 APS News. Vol. 21. http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201210/backpage.cfm

 

 

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July 18, 2014 at 6:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 11, 2014

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By: Bethanie Morrison

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

AACR Joins Coalition in Urging CMS to Adopt Tobacco Screening and Treatment Measures
Despite the undesirable health consequences of smoking, most hospitals have not placed a high priority on offering evidence-based assistance to patients who should or would like to quit smoking. Tobacco use is the leading cause of disease and early mortality in the United States and adds $150 billion in health care costs each year. In its 2015 Proposed Rule on Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encouraged compliance with certain health care performance measures required for CMS to continue to make payments to hospitals. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), in partnership with various public health organizations, has submitted comments to CMS suggesting that they include tobacco use screening, tobacco use treatment during hospitalization, and tobacco use management at discharge for acute- and long-term care hospitals as well as psychiatric facilities. Thus far CMS has incorporated the first two measures in its quality reporting requirements and is being encouraged by AACR and others to incorporate the third. (AACR Cancer Policy Monitor)

Seedy tale: Chinese researchers stole patented corn, U.S. prosecutors allege
U.S. prosecutors have alleged that employees of the Chinese agricultural company Dabeinong Technology Group Co. (DBN) and a subsidiary sneaked through midwestern cornfields and gathered patented corn that they attempted to smuggle out of the United States in microwave popcorn boxes. The strains had been developed by various companies including DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, and LG Seeds. The genetic makeup of corn lines is a highly valued form of intellectual property and is carefully guarded by seed companies. This case reflects real obstacles to innovation within China, according to experts on Chinese agriculture. Court documents reveal that the FBI had been following this group for over a year, and has now arrested seven defendants on charges of stealing trade secrets. DuPont Pioneer has developed a popular corn line in China together with a Chinese company. However, the Chinese government has such tight control over its seed industry that officials have allowed the company to make only one hybrid cultivar available. This tight control has given Chinese scientists the need to investigate the genetic makeup of patented seeds grown in the United States, seeds which they could have requested from DuPont based in China. (Mara Hvistendahl)

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programs
The science coverage on the BBC has recently been criticized for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose issues that have no contention in the science community. As a result, BBC journalists are now being made to attend workshops and courses that will help them establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found, and also how to make that clear to the public audience.  A BBC Trust progress report on this issue stated, “science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.” A “false-balance” occurs when unqualified critics, such as non-scientific heads of lobby firms, are given the same air-time as the qualified scientists. At least 200 BBC staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be offered in the near future to stop journalists giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’ (Sarah Knapton)

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July 11, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 4, 2014

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By: Kaitlyn Morabito

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Malaria parasite alters host body order to entice mosquitoes. Building upon earlier indications that mosquitoes are more attracted to people that are infected with Plasmodium, the parasite that causes Malaria, scientists were able to identify chemical exuded by mice infected with plasmodium which attract Anopheles mosquitoes. These four chemicals are present mainly at 13-20 days post infection, which coincides with diminishing Malaria symptoms. Researchers are now determining whether these findings hold true for infected humans. The presence of these chemicals may allow for rapid detection of people who are carriers of the disease. (Geoffrey Mohan)

Ninety-nine percent of the ocean’s plastic is missing. Disappearing garbage does not typically raise alarm bells, but researchers studying how much garbage is floating in the oceans cannot account for 99% of the estimated plastic that should be in our oceans. Scientists hypothesize that the plastic, which is broken down into tiny pieces by sun and ocean exposure, are becoming fish food. Since fish are part of the food web, they worry that the plastic and toxins such as DDT, PCBs, and mercury that adsorb on the plastic may be concentrating in the fish. These chemicals could make it up the food chain and ultimately eventually land on your plate. However, the effects of fish eating plastic are not known, and neither is how much plastic is being consumed. Other “best case” possibilities for the missing plastic include digestion by microbes, washing ashore and sinking to the bottom of the oceans. Further investigation into the quantity and consequences of marine animal consumption of plastic is needed to assess the risk to the human population. (Angus Chen)

Finally, some solid science on Bigfoot. Following an open solicitation of possible Yeti/Bigfoot hairs, Scientist Bryan Sykes and his colleagues at Oxford University and the Museum of Zoology in Lausaane, Switzerland found two DNA samples matching a 40,000-year-old polar bear’s jawbone. While there was no indication of yeti DNA, researchers may have discovered a new species of bear and deduce that “the hairs are from either an unknown bear species or a hybrid of a brown bear and a polar bear.” However, the match is only based on 100bp of DNA, so these results are preliminary and need to be further validated. Since these samples were collected independently and far apart in both time and distance, Sykes believes this is not a hoax. If real, this bear species may account for some of the Bigfoot sightings in this region. (Erika Engelhaupt)

 

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July 4, 2014 at 6:00 am

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