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Science Policy Around the Web – March 06, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Technology and Health

Is That Smartphone Making Your Teenager’s Shyness Worse?

The development of new technologies, especially computers and smartphones, has greatly changed people’s lifestyles. People can telework without going to offices, and shop online without wandering in stores. While this has brought about convenience, it has also generated many adverse effects. People tend to spend more time with their devices than with their peers. Parents of shy teenagers ask, “Is that smartphone making my teenager’s shyness worse?”

Professor Joe Moran, in his article in the Washington Post, says that the parents’ concern is reasonable. The Stanford Shyness Survey, which was started by Professor Philip Zimbardo in the 1970s, found that “the number of people who said they were shy had risen from 40 percent to 60 percent” in about 20 years. He attributed this to new technology like email, cell phones and even ATMs. He even described such phenomena of non-communication as the arrival of “a new ice age”.

Contrary to Professor Zimbardo’s claims, other findings showed that the new technology provided a different social method. As an example, teenagers often use texting to express their love without running into awkward situations. Texting actually gives them time and space to digest and ponder a response. Further, Professor Moran said that the claim of Professor Zimardo was made before the rise of social networks;  shy teenagers can share their personal life online even if they don’t talk in public. He also talks about the paradox of shyness, where shyness is caused by “our strange capacity for self-attention”, while “we are also social animals that crave the support and approval of the tribe.” Therefore, new technologies are not making the shyness worse, in contrast social networks and smartphones can help shy teenagers find new ways to express that contradiction. (Joe Moran, Washington Post)

Genomics

Biologists Propose to Sequence the DNA of All Life on Earth

You may think that it is impossible to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth, but at a meeting organized by the Smithsonian Initiative on Biodiversity Genomics and the Shenzhen, China-based sequencing powerhouse BGI, researchers announced their intent to start the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP). The news was reported in Science. There are other ongoing big sequencing projects such as the UK Biobank, which aims to sequence the genomes of 500,000 individuals.

The significance of the EBP will greatly help “understand how life evolves”, says Oliver Ryder, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in California. Though the EBP researchers are still working on many details, they propose to carry out this project in three steps. Firstly, they plan to sequence the genome of a member of each eukaryotic family (about 9000 in all) in great detail as reference genomes. Secondly, they would sequence species from each of the 150,000 to 200,000 genera to a lesser degree. Finally, the sequencing task will be expanded to the 1.5 million remaining known eukaryotic species with a lower resolution, which can be improved if needed. As suggested by EBP researchers, the eukaryotic work might be completed in a decade.

There are many challenges to starting this project. One significant challenge is sampling, which requires international efforts from developing countries, particularly those with high biodiversity. The Global Genome Biodiversity Network could supply much of the DNA needed, as it is compiling lists and images of specimens at museums and other biorepositories around the world. As not all DNA samples in museum specimens are good enough for high-quality genomes, getting samples from the wild would be the biggest challenge and the highest cost. The EBP researchers also need to develop standards to ensure high-quality genome sequences and to record associated information for each species sequenced. (Elizabeth Pennisi, ScienceInsider)

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March 6, 2017 at 8:41 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 17, 2017

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By: Kseniya Golovnina, PhD

Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Copyright (c) 2004 Richard Ling, under Creative Commons

Biodiversity

The Mysterious World of Antarctica is More than Penguins

On December 21, 2016 the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) released a video, which was made under the sea ice in O’Brien Bay, south of Casey research station in East Antarctica. This was the last part of the Australian Antarctic program, led by Dr. Johnny Stark, with the aim to observe the effect of climate change and ocean acidification due to increased carbon dioxide emissions on the Southern Ocean seafloor communities.

AAD biologist Dr. Glenn Johnstone and his team launched a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) through the small hole drilled in the ice and captured a rare glimpse of wonderful colorful Antarctic underwater world. They discovered a flourishing community of sea life below the massive ice sheet, at 30 meters below the surface, where the water temperature is −1.5°C year round, and the sea is covered by ice that is 1.5 meters thick for more than 10 months of the year. The video surprisingly revealed “a habitat that is productive, colorful, dynamic and full of a wide variety of biodiversity, including sponges, sea spiders, urchins, sea cucumbers and sea stars.”

About 30% of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean and increases its acidity. According to NASA Earth Observatory, increased acidity will increase the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, making the carbonate shells of marine organisms such as corals thinner and more fragile. Higher water temperatures would also decrease the abundance of phytoplanktons, which play an important role in the carbon cycle absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The increased carbon dioxide in the ocean might facilitate the growth of a few species of phyplanktons that take carbon dioxide directly from the water, but overall excess carbon would be detrimental to most ocean species.

Scientists are only now beginning to understand the complex underwater Antarctic ecosystem. Antarctica may be one of the first places where the detrimental effects of ocean acidification are seen, says Dr. Stark. These studies could be a good future indicator of the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on ocean ecosystems. (Australian Antarctic Division)

Food Policy

One or Two Tablespoons of Nutella?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has closed collecting public comments about a regulatory change that would cut Nutella’s labeled serving size by half. More than 650 comments were collected. “One tablespoon or two tablespoons?” – The Washington Post explains the difference. The issue was about the appropriate reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) and product category. Nutella is classified as a dessert topping, with a RACC of two tablespoons. The serving size typically indicates how much Americans consume at a time and not how much they should, to make it easy for people to compare different products.

Its manufacturer, Ferrero, has asked that Nutella be reclassified as a jam or put in a different product category. This would cut the serving size that Nutella displays on its labels to one tablespoon, which would also decrease the sugar and calorie counts. It is already the second request from Nutella’s company since 2014. As they said to the Washington Post “it was simply seeking clarity as it and other companies prepare their new Nutrition Facts labels, slated for release in 2018”. However, critics of Nutella’s FDA petition including Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, warn people about the marketing ploy to trick people into thinking that it has less calories. If Nutella’s serving size is changed to one tablespoon, it could advertise a mere 100 calories per serving — versus roughly 188 calories for two tablespoons of peanut butter, or 196 calories for almond.

At the same time the question of one or two tablespoons seems not so relevant if one takes a look at the company’s website, where they say “you could circle the world with the amount of Nutella produced every year”. U.S. sales of Nutella are up 39% — from $161.4 million to $224.3 million — in the past five years in comparison with 5% for other nut butters. (Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post)

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January 17, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 7, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, Ph.D.

Amazon Manaus forest” by Phil P Harris. – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Conservation Policy

A collaboration between science and religion for ecological conservation

Science has the potential to solve many of the world’s problems, but it may be overly optimistic to think that science alone can cure the world of all that ails it. Climate change and loss of biodiversity threaten humans in a way that we have yet to fully comprehend, and yet these problems emerged not as a result of some mysterious force, but rather because of simple human choices – the collective action (and inaction) of humans over the course of many years. This suggests that the solution to these most grand challenges does not only require scientific breakthroughs. Instead, the solution presents itself to us with a disappointing and somewhat undesirable simplicity: a problem created by humans might also be solved by human cooperation, responsibility, and ownership of our world and our problems. Indeed to tackle the world’s most complex challenges, science and society will need to work together.

Christine A. Scheller reported in March that the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting featured a dialogue on science, ethics, and religion (DoSER) discussion, which addressed the potential opportunities for collaboration between conservation scientists and religious communities in stemming the loss of biodiversity. The speakers included conservation biologist, Karen Lips, wildlife ecologist, Peyton West, and theologian, William Brown. Lips, the director of the Graduate Program in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology at the University of Maryland, College Park discussed the decline of amphibious species and noted that while scientists may understand the causes of the problem and potential solutions, the efficacy of any conservation effort will require participation and engagement of those communities where species are going extinct. Similarly, West, the Executive Director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society-U.S. described the important and unique role of religious leaders in shaping the beliefs and behavior of their followers and highlighted the efforts of Catholic, Buddhist, and Islamic leaders to discourage ivory trafficking. Finally, Brown, a Columbia Theological Seminary Professor of the Old Testament observed that nature is represented in the Bible as the dominion of man – a perspective that has been historically “unhelpful” in encouraging conservation. He ended more positively, however, noting that “[m]uch of scripture affirms God’s love for all creation and acknowledges humanity’s vital connection with the nonhuman animal world.”

Science and religion are arguably the two most powerful thought systems in our global society. There is enormous potential to transform our world for the better if we can align the goals of each system toward creating a more just, balanced, healthy world and to identify opportunities for collaboration to achieve these goals. The DoSER program is an exciting forum in which these collaborations may take root. (Christine A. Scheller, AAAS)

Human Genetics

Why try to build a human genome from scratch?

Last week, a group of scientists released a report in the journal Science outlining their goals of building a complete human genome from scratch. This goal was initially discussed in a closed-door meeting, which drew criticism from those concerned about the ethics of such a proposition. The recent report is the product of that meeting and is intended to achieve transparency and to initiate an open discussion on the value, as well as the ethical and practical considerations of such a goal.

The proposed initiative is named “HGP-write” for human genome project – write, to differentiate it from the first, highly fruitful stage of reading the sequence of the human genome (HGP-read), which was completed in 2004. Perhaps in response to their initial criticism, the authors begin the report by acknowledging the ethical questions that will arise over the course of the project and emphasize that they hope to ensure responsible innovation by allocating a portion of research funding to facilitate “inclusive decision-making”. These will likely be valuable discussions with the potential to yield regulatory decisions that should be relevant for emerging gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, as well.

The authors go on to say that just as HGP-read produced a significant decrease in the cost of DNA sequencing, one of the goals of HGP-write is to develop technology that will make synthesizing large pieces of DNA faster and cheaper – they cite an optimistic goal of decreasing “the costs of engineering and testing large (0.1 to 100 billion base pairs) genomes in cell lines by over 1000-fold within ten years.”

But how would this technology be applied? The authors provide a number of examples, notably focused on the cell and organ level, including: to facilitate the growth of transplantable human organs in other animals and to engineer cell lines or organoids for cost-efficient vaccine and pharmaceutical development, among others. Additionally, the authors note that this ambitious project would begin by synthesizing small pilot genomes and DNA fragments, and that even these small-scale projects would be of substantial value, for example to synthesize an entire gene locus including associated noncoding DNA may provide insight into the regulatory role of noncoding DNA in gene expression and disease. The project is expected to begin this year with an initial investment of $100 million from a variety of public and private sources, and the authors estimate that in the end the project will cost less than the $3 billion spent during HGP-read.

Without a doubt, there is much good that could come from HGP-write – the ethical debate, the technological advances, a better understanding of the so-called “junk” DNA that makes up the majority of the human genome, and the applications of synthesized genomes. It is an exciting proposition that should be approached carefully and inclusively.

Peer Review Process

Confronting Bias in Peer Review

Humans are unavoidably flawed, and one of our greatest flaws is that each of us carries subtle biases – preconceptions about the world that shape our view and simplify our interaction with an unimaginably complex world. The essential role of peer-review in the scientific endeavor is founded on the assumption that our peers are able to think and make objective assessments of the value and quality of our work, without bias. In a system of thinking and observation that depends entirely on objective, measurable truths, there should be no value placed on who made the observation. Unfortunately, science and decisions about publishing and funding scientific research are exclusively human activities, and thus they are subject to the irrational biases that are so characteristically human.

No one – not even a scientist – is free of bias, and a recent AAAS-sponsored forum sought to highlight the presence of bias in scientific peer-review. Ginger Pinholster wrote about this forum on intrinsic bias in a Science magazine article from May 27th. Pinholster reports that multiple speakers observed that bias in scientific peer-review is not only a problem of fairness.  Geraldine Richmond, the AAAS Board Chair, noted that “unconscious assumptions about gender, ethnicity, disabilities, nationality, and institutions clearly limit the science and technology talent pool and undermine scientific innovation.”

Editors from the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Chemical Society pointed out a US-centric bias in peer-review. Gender bias was discussed as well by Suzanne C. Iacono, head of the Office of Integrative Activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Though success rates in grant funding from NSF were similar for men and women in 2014, women submitted only one quarter of the total grant applications. Iacono also noted that success rates for NSF applications submitted by African-American scientists were lower than the overall success rate of submitted applications (18% vs 24%), but more worrisome is the fact that only 2% of the submitted applications were submitted by African-American scientists. Similarly Richard Nakamura, director of the Center for Scientific Review at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) cited that African-American scientists have a success rate of funding from NIH that is approximately half that of white applicants.

While a number of potential interventions to minimize bias were discussed, including double-blind peer-review, it is clear from the relatively small number of funding applications from women and African-Americans that larger structural changes must occur to support and retain women and minority scientists early in their scientific development. The interest of AAAS in studying and addressing problems of bias in scientific peer-review is commendable. Understanding the problem is an important first step and finding a solution will require practice in self-awareness, as well as cooperation between high schools, universities, and finally funding and publishing agencies. (Ginger Pinholster, Science)

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June 7, 2016 at 10:00 am