By: Emily Petrus, Ph.D.
Big Data Fighting Terror
How do we stop terrorist attacks before they happen? The US Department of Defense (DOD) has projects dedicated to maintaining our military prowess; however, a new branch of science may be our best bet in fighting this increasingly sinister opponent. Managing huge sets of data from multiple sources presents a challenge for our intelligence and military organizations as we scramble to thwart acts of terror. This involves identifying target locations, suspects and reacting quickly and/or proactively.
After the terror attacks of 9/11, the Patriot Act was passed to allow the government unprecedented access to data from Americans, including bulk phone metadata – famously leaked by Edward Snowden after working for the National Security Agency. Although this type of data is no longer accessible since the bill expired in 2015, the government now has more data than it knows how to handle from social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The National Science Foundation and the DOD are seeking interdisciplinary approaches to efficiently analyze huge data sets and enhance predictive abilities to spot potential terror suspects or events.
It is estimated that ISIS members make up to 90,000 posts on social media per day, so sifting through these posts is a challenge being tackled by researchers and data miners. A 2015 paper looked at 3.1 million Arabic tweets related to ISIS from 250,000 different users over the span of a few years. Using big data analytics they were able to use present tweets to determine if users were pro or anti-ISIS. After identifying users’ present status, they used an algorithm to look at past tweets and predicted which users became ISIS supporters with 87% accuracy.
Our country must weigh the benefits of using big data to foil terror plots before they happen against the loss of privacy. Just this month the House of Representatives voted to block expansion of the Patriot Act, which would have allowed banks to share information with federal authorities of those suspected of funding terrorism. America may be the land of the free, but like France, this leaves us vulnerable to opportunistic terrorists.
House gives thumbs-up to GMO label law; bill goes to Obama
Food labels are about to get more complicated: a law proposed by the Senate was passed by the House of Representatives on July 14th will require foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled. The labels will be designed with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversight, and can include text, a logo, or a Quick Response (QR) smartphone code. The federal government was pushed to action by the recent legislation in Vermont, which required GMO labeling for foods in grocery stores. This caused many food products to be removed from sale in Vermont such as Coca-Cola, Sabra Hummus, and Heinz Ketchup because companies did not have the motivation or time to prepare labels for Vermont’s new law.
The benefits of passing a law reduces the patchwork of laws bound to spring up in other states, which decreases the burden of individual state labeling for food makers. However there is no consensus on what qualifies as a GMO, as some genetic modifications are simply via selective breeding, while others are “in the lab” like recombinant DNA techniques. Other problems with the bill are exceptions; including foods made with a GMO no longer have the genetic material after processing, which is the case with many sweeteners and cooking oils.
Although the “right to know” movement stimulated by public interest has good intentions, unfortunately the anti-GMO movement is not backed by scientific research. Recently, more than 100 Nobelaureates penned a letter to Greenpeace requesting they stop their anti-GMO campaign. They point to examples of GMO products being better for public health and the environment, as they increase food’s nutritional value and often reduce the amount of chemicals required.
Overall, the mandatory GMO labeling is a compromise bill which will increase the amount of information available about the foods we purchase. Unfortunately the variety of methods used and the complexity of genetic modification of food makes it difficult to make into a simple label for the general population’s benefit. (Jim Spencer, Star Tribune)
Science’s status shifts in new Brexit government
The weeks following the Brexit yielded an atmosphere of chaos for British politicians, citizens and scientists as the world came to grips with what an EU exit would do for the economy and everyday lives of those in the UK. Scientists in the UK are especially anxious following the Brexit, as researchers have much at stake with a split from the EU. These include limited access to EU research dollars, less mobility for scientists seeking training opportunities and collaborations between the UK and EU, and an uncertainty for the level of support they will receive from the new UK government.
Now the UK has selected a new prime minister, Theresa May, who has been busy re-organizing government offices. A new department responsible for research funding and oversight will now be headed by Greg Clark, a previous science minister, which is positive news for the scientific community. The department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) replaces the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which had research budget of $6.3 billion. The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) also seems to be rolled into the BEIS, although some worry that without a specific department for environmental concerns, funding and priority for this research and combating climate change will fall by the wayside.
With a swift ascension to the prime minister spot and no actual campaign, scientists have very little idea if May values scientific research. In the past she has pushed to restrict visas (hampering scientist movement and training opportunities), and supported a bill to ban “designer drugs”. However scientists remain hopeful as “[s]he has been an example of good practice in gathering evidence, and also of explaining her decisions when they have not gone with the scientific advice” said Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. For the future, scientists will have to wait and see if May views science as a funding priority. (Davide Castelvecchi, Nature News)
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