By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.
Map representing scientific collaborations from 2005 to 2009 using data from Scopus. International cooperation. Credit: Computed by Olivier H. Beauchesne and Scimago Lab
Science Policy on a Global Scale
Global science engagement
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will have its annual meeting in Washington DC, from 11 to 15 February 2016. World leaders in science and policy will discuss major challenges, such as food security and health, facing the global community. Dr. Geraldine Richmond, President of the AAAS, says that nations need to employ ingenious ways to find solutions to the ever-increasing demands for food, energy, water, and a healthy environment, which are complex and interconnected problems. Dr. Richmond emphasizes the importance of international research partnerships and innovative approaches that assimilate perspectives and lessons from all over the world, including the developing countries. Such ‘Global Science Engagement’ will be the focus of this year’s AAAS meeting. Dr. Richmond cautions that isolationist views that undervalue international initiatives are unwise. For example, the United States spends billions of dollars providing clean drinking water to its people, but 90 percent of that water is flushed down the drain. Valuable lessons could be learnt from countries such as Namibia where recycled water has been consumed since 1969 with no adverse health consequences. Diversity in opinions, ideas, and experiences is essential to furthering creativity and innovation that is required to solve complex global problems. But scientists in developing countries face difficulties connecting with their peers in more advanced nations, for e.g. due to limited journal access, and people in the United States who are interested in global engagement have limited ways to do so. While commending the efforts of AAAS and other scientific societies in facilitating international engagements, Dr. Richmond calls for more efforts and commitment to strengthen such collaborations. (Geraldine Richmond, Science)
New Weapon to Fight Zika: The Mosquito
The Zika virus is rapidly spreading in the Americas, and has been linked to a severe defect in brain development, microcephaly, in babies. The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes, mainly the Aedes aegypti species, which also transmits deadly infections such as chikungunya, yellow fever and dengue fever. Efforts to develop vaccines against the virus are underway, but it may take many years, even a decade, before an effective vaccine can be given to the public. Experts argue that new methods are needed since the traditional ones, involving insecticides and reducing stagnant water to prevent mosquito breeding, aren’t enough.
The British company Oxitec has developed genetically engineered mosquitoes that transmit a lethal gene to their progeny, which die before reaching adulthood. These engineered mosquitoes have been successfully used to lower mosquito populations by more than 80 percent in certain parts of Brazil. Oxitec says this is an ecologically friendly approach because only one species is targeted, as opposed to chemical spraying that affects many organisms. But the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment has met with opposition. Another approach is to infect the mosquitoes with the bacterium Wolbachia, which makes it harder for the mosquitoes to transmit viruses. The bacteria can be passed through eggs, making this a self-sustaining method. Initial results in Brazil appear promising, encouraging trials on a larger scale. A third powerful approach is the use of gene-drives. Gene-drives allow for the propagation of a desired trait, for e.g. sterility, through a wild population. Though gene-drives have been tested in laboratory scales, it might be not so easy to deploy it in public yet, mainly because of concerns that it would be very difficult to reverse things if something undesirable happens.
Remarking on the three approaches, Dr. Peterson, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “We don’t know about the efficacy of any of them on a wide enough scale… For now, we’ve got to deal with what we have.” Experts say that the traditional methods of mosquito control need to be intensified, till we have proven the large-scale efficacies of the new approaches and/or developed an effective vaccine. (Andrew Pollack, The New York Times)
How cases like Flint destroy public trust in science
While the Flint water crisis is being investigated, disturbing reports emerge about how studies that showed a problem in Flint’s drinking water were dismissed. In Fall 2015, a team of researchers in Virginia Tech, led by Dr. March Edwards, examined the lead content of drinking water in Flint homes. The study revealed that the 90th percentile reading was 27 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency considers 5 parts per billion a cause for concern, and 15 parts per billion as the limit above which the problem should be fixed. However, tests conducted by the city showed lead levels within safe limits. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality responded saying that the state was perplexed by the study results, but not surprised, given that Dr. Edwards’ “group specializes in looking for high lead problems.” According to reports, the city’s water testing results had been “revised by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to wrongly indicate the water was safe to drink.” The state officials attempted “to use power instead of logic and scientific reasoning to defend and hide their actions,” says Dr. Edwards. Similarly, studies done by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, pediatrics program director at Michigan’s Hurley Medical Center, were also initially criticized. Her study showed that the percent of children with elevated blood lead levels doubled, or tripled in some areas, after the change in water source. When the state later analyzed its data using the same approach as Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the results matched.
Dr. Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University, says that though these events may not classify as “science denials,” they constitute a less-defined category of “no one likes bad news.” “Why didn’t government officials take it seriously when scientists tried to raise an alarm?” she asks. When government officials responsible for people’s safety commit acts like these, it crushes the public’s faith in science, and exacerbates problems such as denial of climate change or the safety of vaccination. How do we prevent problems like Flint from reoccurring? The answer is not clear yet, but some suggestions include conducting better checks and balances by independent researchers not affiliated with the government, and not overlooking the role of universities in protecting public welfare. According to Dr. Aron Sousa, the work by Edwards and Hanna-Attisha should reinforce the public’s faith in good science. (Chelsea Harvey, The Washington Post)
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