Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 5, 2015

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By: Elisavet Serti, Ph.D.

Science Policy

The growing challenges of scientific advising

Scientists are increasingly called upon to share their scientific expertise and help governments shape policies and regulations in response to public health threats, such as the recent Ebola epidemic. During this time, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was interviewed daily and met with high ranking government officials in order to inform the public about the Ebola disease. His job was to specify precautions should be taken, what safety regulations should be established in order to control the epidemic and avoid its spread to the United States, and how infected patients should be treated. This crisis, and the way it was handled by the media, is one of the several examples of the importance of scientific counseling and its challenges. Other scientists that were involved in Ebola research or other infectious diseases were also frequently asked for their scientific perspective.

According to a recent article in Science magazine, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently issued a report entitled Scientific Advice for Policy Making to illuminate the roles and responsibility of scientists in policy decisions. OECD reported that, in emergency situations, media interest “can encourage alternative sources of scientific or expert information to publicize their own diagnoses or forecasts, which can differ significantly from the views of official/mandated scientific advisory structures”. While different scientific perspectives are necessary for the process of public health related issues, “[t]he diversity of solicited and unsolicited advice can be a challenge for decision-makers [and] create confusion in the public realm.” The article concluded that an advising scientist should have some specific qualities before joining the arena of science policy. Today, “[s]cientists find themselves in a policy arena where the interests of a variety of stakeholders have to be balanced: scientists, policy and law makers, regulators, industry, [nongovernmental organizations], the public at large,” the report says. Scientists should therefore “be open to expert opinions coming from outside their selected group,” and recognize “that relevant expertise is often available outside established academic structures.” Finally, scientific advisers should accept and communicate the issue of scientific uncertainty and the need of more research before expressing an absolute opinion. “As a general rule, [they] should explicitly assess uncertainties and communicate and explain them to policy makers,” the report says. “In emergencies or on controversial issues, policy makers and the general public want quick answers from the scientific establishment, and researchers are under pressure to come up with clear-cut advice, even though the uncertainties are often high.” (Elisabeth Pain, Science Careers)

Science and Foreign Policy

Cuba’s scientists are ready to rejoin the international scientific community

Ernesto Altshuler, is a physicist and runs his own research lab in University of Havana, Cuba, one of the world’s more challenging settings for conducting science. The research resources are very poor and there has been a persistent “brain drain”, as the majority of scientists leave the country as soon as they graduate university. Cubans believe that the U.S. embargo, which has been in place for a half-century, is responsible for this scientific crisis; “The embargo is like God. It affects every aspect of life,” says Sergio Jorge-Pastrana, foreign secretary of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba (ACC). The embargo prohibits the import of equipment and supplies made in the United States or with U.S. components, furthermore, the Internet speed is extremely slow and U.S. travel restrictions have hampered academic exchange between the two countries. Dr. Altshuler was interviewed by Richard Stone on behalf of the Science magazine, where he explained that he had to find “alternative” ways to do his research “invading zones where I was not a specialist, looking around for new phenomena with wider eyes, seeing scientific instruments in daily life objects, attacking and retreating from serendipitous findings like a guerrilla.” However, for his studies of granular materials, Altshuler spent about $100 “to obtain the same quality of data” as other researchers who spend millions of dollars on microgravity experiments, says Thorsten Pöschel, a physicist at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. After the historic rapprochement last December, Cuban President Raúl Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced that their nations would strive to overcome mutual hostility and normalize relations. This means that Cuban science is now ready to join the modern world as the revised travel rules ease visits to Cuba for U.S. scientists, and the U.S. Commerce Department can now allow scientific equipment to be freely donated to Cuba, as long as it does not have potential military applications. (Richard Stone, Science)

Multidisciplinary Cancer Research

Immunology and Oncology join hands against the fight of cancer

The standard four options of cancer treatment currently are tumor dissection, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and “targeted therapies” that use antibodies to specifically target the tumor and have the potential to kill it. For a fifth alternative, immunologists and oncologists have collaborated efficiently and presented their latest data on anti-cancer strategies at this year’s meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), in Chicago. A fifth type of cancer treatment that will be based on “immuno-oncology” is likely to be broadly established in clinical practice in the next few years. Like “targeted therapies”, these new approaches often use antibodies; however, the new treatments do not directly attack cancerous cells, but instead they boost the immune responses against them. Cancer cells seem to use strategies of manipulating the immune system in a way that favors their evasion and spread among which are failure of recognition and/or immune cell suppression. The “immune-oncology” strategic approach is to use one or more antibodies or small molecule inhibitors in the crucial checkpoints of immune cell regulation by cancer cells so that the immune cells recognize and efficiently attack the tumor. The combination new treatment results look promising, especially for lung cancer, but there is still some room for improvement. As seen in previous innovative therapies, for example in Hepatitis C new antivirals, their cost is very high, ranging from $130,000 to $150,000 per patient per year. (The Economist)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 5, 2015 at 3:48 pm

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