Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 27, 2017

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: pixabay


An Arms Race with Nature

H7N9, a new bird flu emerging in China, has infected roughly 1,500 people and killed 40% of them. The virus is contracted directly from infected birds but is not yet easily transmissible between humans, however researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have evidence H7N9 could potentially become transmissible between humans fairly easily. They examined a fragment of the virus that interacts with receptors on animal cells to gain entrance, and identified three minor mutations that could cause the fragment to shift from preferentially entering avian cells to preferentially entering human cells. If these mutations were to occur, it could rapidly result in a pandemic.

Tests in a viral fragment do not prove functionality in the intact virus; that would require mutating H7N9 itself. A 2014 moratorium on mutating three types of viruses (SARS, MERS, influenza) to more dangerous forms is expected to lift when the Department of Health and Human Services finishes current work drafting a new policy establishing reviews designed to assess benefit/risk ratios before funding research.

The subject is divisive, even among scientists in the field. Stanford researcher David Relman says he would support efforts to test mutations in a weakened strain of flu, but not in the H7N9 virus.  Bioterrorism expert Thomas Inglesby opposes increasing the contagious lethality of a virus, and opposes publishing such procedures due to concern that less benevolent actors would be enabled to replicate the process. NIH funded researcher, Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands, whose alteration of H5N1 to become highly contagious between ferrets (the animal model for humans) in 2011 influenced the moratorium, believes examining dangerous virus mutations in a controlled lab environment is important to identify potential pandemic viruses.

Many of these topics were discussed at the recent Immunology and Evolution of Influenza Symposium, and are sure to be a hot topic at the July 16 – 19 Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance meeting. With policy guidance needed on benefit/risk, potentially safer models, security, and publication limitations, the new HHS policy will be critical. (Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR)


Modeling with Dough – Pick your Species

The Supreme Court found the Endangered Species Act was “intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction—whatever the cost.” Today, in light of the cost, conservation policy makers are being invited to triage species extinctions. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives recently met with ecologist Dr. Leah Gerber to discuss her proposed use of an algorithm guiding conservation funding.

A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Gerber says her model suggests that defunding “costly failures,” including the spotted owl, golden-cheeked warbler and gopher tortoise, could help save about 180 other species. Gerber says policy makers may opt to continue to support species that her algorithm rejects, as was done for the koala in Australia where algorithm triage has been used. In this case, a popularity contest may determine who lives and who goes extinct.

Details of the algorithm are not explicit, but Dr. Gerber’s recent publication in PNAS is a straightforward return-on-investment calculation analyzing the mathematical relationship between funds requested, spent, and species success or decline.  Gerber finds “the cost–success curve is convex; funding surpluses were common for the species least likely and most likely to recover” so it’s not simply ‘money in – species out’. Other factors – endemism, keystone status, level of species risk – are also important, though Gerber acknowledges they are not currently included.

While proponents call use of the equation “doing the best you can with what you have,” lack of data on its predictive validity make it a frightening policy tool governing something as permanent as species extinction. What if region affects costs, population growth is slower in species reaching sexual maturity later, a break-through in understanding one species’ requirements is just around the corner or we haven’t yet discovered the significance of the niche occupied by another species? What if business or political interests conflict with a species’ needs? What if the algorithm developer seeks intellectual property legal status, as is happening now with a proprietary algorithm used in parole and sentencing situations? Algorithms impacting public policy should be vetted by multiple experts in germane disciplines, validated, and kept publicly accessible for healthy scrutiny. (Sharon Bernstein, Reuters)


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June 27, 2017 at 11:42 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 9, 2017

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

By Robert A. Rohde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Please Pass the Crickets!

Most people know that eating beef is bad for the environment. A new study from the University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s rural college quantifies the impact human carnivores could have if we switched half of our current meat intake to insects such as crickets and mealworms. Cattle require huge swaths of pasture and produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane. Methane is released during normal digestive processes, and methane and other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide are released from manure.

The idea of switching from a plate of steak to a bowl of mealworms may be too much for most Westerners, so what’s the human meat lover to do? Luckily, the study suggested that switching harmful beef for chicken or imitation meat (such as tofu) can yield large environmental benefits, because poultry and soy plants both require less land and produce less greenhouse gasses than cattle. The study also concluded that “meat in a dish”, or lab grown meat, was not more sustainable than chicken or eggs.

Although meat might not be replaced by insects any time soon for humans, we can still begin to incorporate insects into the farming discussion. Currently cattle raised for human consumption are fed diets of hay, soy, grain and other surprising items. These cattle need high levels of protein, which is one reason why mad cow disease became so prevalent – uneaten parts of cows were fed to other cows, which made them sick. Insects could help solve the protein gap for cattle, which was supported by a general survey of farmers, agricultural stakeholders and the public in Belgium.

Our eating practices affect the environment; moving towards a sustainable agricultural system is a commendable goal. Every person can decide for themselves how far they’re willing to go along the food chain to achieve a smaller carbon footprint. (ScienceDaily)

Vision Loss

Letting the Blind See Again

Vision loss is devastating – vision is the most relied upon source of sensory input for humans.  This can occur from an accident or genetic/physiological disorders. Retinitis pigmentosa causes a degeneration of the retina, and affects about 100,000 people in the US. Currently there is no cure, but clinical trials are exploring treatments to slow the process using gene therapy, dietary changes, or other drugs.

A new synthetic, soft tissue retina has been invented by a graduate student at Oxford University.  This artificial retina is biodegradable and uses synthetic but biological tissues to mimic the human retina.  The material composition is less likely to trigger an adverse reaction in the body and are less invasive than current retina transplants made of hard metal materials. Restrepo-Schild developed a bilayer of water droplets which respond to light with electrical impulses. The signals translate to cells at the back of the eye just like healthy retinal cells should. The new retina prototype has yet to be tested in animals to see if it translates well to humans.

Another way to restore vision is gaining traction: xenotransplants (transplants from animals to humans). Just last year a Chinese boy’s vision was restored after a corneal transplant from a pig. Pigs are good candidates for human transplantation because they are anatomically and physiologically similar, and they are ethically more desirable sources than non-human primates. Although pigs are not immunologically similar to humans, the eye transplants are unlikely to be rejected by the recipient because this part of the body is immune-privileged.

Restoring vision is an important and admirable task. Scientists and clinicians have multiple avenues to explore to help people regain their sight. (ScienceDaily)

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May 9, 2017 at 9:43 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 24, 2017

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD

Landfill by Dhscommtech at GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons


New Discovery Could Lead to a Safer Solution to Plastic Pollution

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a commonly used resin of the polyester family used in the fibers for clothing and liquid containers. In 2015 alone, 56 million tons of PET was produced. Although recyclable, with 1.5 billion pounds recovered annually in the United States, PET is not biodegradable and is a major presence in landfills. Screening 250 samples of contaminated soil, waste water and sludge from a bottle recycling factory for microorganisms that can grow on PET, a team of Japanese scientists has discovered a bacterium, Idoenella sakaiensis, that can break down this tough plastic. Recently spotlighted as a major breakthrough of 2016 by the American Chemical Society, research on the bacterium continues as scientists seek to unlock the mechanism behind the biodegradation pathway that was previously thought to be impossible. Professor Kenji Miyamoto, one of the study authors, said, “This is the first PET-degrading bacterium found [with potential] to develop a new and nature-friendly system”. (Research Highlights, Keio University).

Biomedical Research

Trump Asks NIH Director Francis Collins to Stay On

Last Thursday, on the eve of the inauguration, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that Dr. Francis Collins has been asked to continue his role as NIH director by the Trump administration for an unspecified time. This eleventh hour development came as Collins received back the letter of resignation he had sent late last year, something all presidential appointees do. If asked to stay on through this presidential term, Collins, part of Obama’s science ‘dream team’, would be the first NIH director since the 1970s to be chosen by two presidents.

Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania said, “In general, I think more than eight years has not been a good idea. There’s a cycle, and eight years is hard to have new ideas and new energy.”  Nonetheless, Collins, a National Academy of Sciences member who led the human genome project and a highly vocal Christian apologist, would serve as an effective bridge between the research community and the new Republican administration to secure much needed funding for basic research. Tony Mazzashi, senior director for policy and research at the Association schools and Programs of Public Health in Washington DC said, “ I think everyone in the research community will be thrilled.” (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)

Public Health

Novavax Starts New Clinical Trial in Bid to Prove Failed RSV Vaccine

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a significant public health burden, infecting almost all children by age 2, with 5 to 20 out of 1,000 requiring hospitalization and with a mortality rate of 8 to 34 out of 10,000. Unfortunately, the development of an effective vaccine has been challenging. In the late 1960s, an RSV vaccine for infants devastatingly failed clinical trials with 80% of children receiving the shot being hospitalized. Recent advances in immunology and the RSV vaccine target has led to a new generation of potentially safer and more effective vaccine candidates from industry giants Novavax, GlaxoSmithKline, Global Vaccines, AstraZeneca and MedImmune. Also being explored is vaccination of expectant mothers to protect infants.

However, the field took a hit last year when Novavax’s candidate vaccine failed its phase 3 clinical trials, resulting in a 30% layoff of its workforce. Nonetheless, last Thursday, the company announced that it has started a new phase 2 trial on older adults in the southern hemisphere.  “We expect the results from this trial to inform the next steps in our older adults program and would ensure we maintain our leadership position in this very attractive market opportunity,” said Stanley Erck, president and CEO of Novavax. (Tina Reed, Washington Business Journal)

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January 24, 2017 at 10:04 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


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

Perspective on Climate Change: Supporters versus Skeptics

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

        A recent United Nations report shows that earth’s surface temperature is rapidly hurtling towards a two degrees Celsius increase. Scientists say that the world must stay below two degrees to avoid the worst effects of climate change. However solving this issue can be challenging and overwhelming. The science used to generate the evidence for climate change is complicated and the predictions carry many caveats and asterisks. Nonetheless the major question that stands out is, “What is climate change and why people are skeptic about it?”

The definition of climate change itself triggers a difference in opinion. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change refers to “A change in the climate that persists for decades or longer, arising from either natural causes or human activity”. This definition differs from that in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where climate change preferentially refers to “A change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere.” Instead, UNFCCC defines a change in climate over comparable time periods because of natural causes as climate variability.

Keeping these definitions aside, many policymakers and major corporations worldwide have agreed and expressed willingness to address climate change. They believe the scientific evidence generated so far demands action. But some scientists, economists, industry groups, and policy experts continue to insist that there is no need for policy changes. Ironically many people concede with them and insist that the entire problem is exaggerated. The debate between the supporters and the skeptics is ingrained, and both groups deride each other with countless claims and counterclaims on both the science and proposed policy solutions.

Surprisingly, some climate-change skeptics do admit that the earth is warming. But they debate the cause, its potential impact, and whether human intervention is affecting it. As Myron Ebell, the president elects’ select candidate for leading the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency, stated his views on climate change “I agree that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and its concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing as a result of human activities—primarily burning coal, oil, and natural gas, where I disagree is whether this amounts to a crisis that requires drastic action.”

So what are the premises on which the skeptics insist that the current policies addressing the issue of climate change are unwarranted and dispensable? Broadly, this question can be answered by discussing the views of skeptics versus supporters on three major points of concern.

First, what is global warming and is it really happening?


The skeptics argue that the earth is not warming. They contend that the satellite-based temperature measurements, taken across the earth’s surface, indicate no measurable change in the last 30 years, and that the measuring standards are different in every place resulting in inconsistent readings. Besides, the IPCC’s graph of “global” temperatures is incorrect as they do not state the earlier cool period of about 1400 or a very warm period from about 900 to 1050 when the temperatures in Europe were several degrees warmer than today. They also make the point that warming is natural and if the earth was warmer during those periods and consecutively cooled down via some natural mechanisms, then that will happen in the future too.


According to IPCC and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), records of temperature that date back to the distant past, generated by analysis of ice cores and sediments, are quite accurate and suggest that the warming in recent decades is way higher than any period over the past millennium. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said, “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years.” 15 out of the 16 hottest years in NASA’s 134-year record have occurred since 2000.

Second, is there any real impact because of climate change?


Skeptics believe that climate change has no impact whatsoever and is not responsible for the extreme weather catastrophes in recent times. It has happened in the past and has no connection with either global warming or increased levels of carbon dioxide.


The supporters says that the impacts are everywhere starting from the melting of polar ice sheets to endangered biodiversity, which will eventually risk human health and society. In the US alone, numerous weather and climate-born billion-dollar disasters have occurred from 1980-2016, the most recent being the historic flood devastating a large area of southern Louisiana.

Third, and the most disputed subject is…

Are human beings really responsible for climate change?


According to skeptics the carbon dioxide levels are not high enough to elicit concern as the current carbon dioxide levels were exceeded in the last 150 years. Besides, they argue that water vapor, and not carbon dioxide, is the significant greenhouse gas because it absorbs more radiant heat than carbon dioxide and makes up about 3% of the atmosphere compared to 0.03% by carbon dioxide. The current level of carbon dioxide contributes to about 3% of the total warming and hence the anthropogenic carbon dioxide contribution to total warming is, at the most, about 0.1%. Therefore carbon dioxide generated because of “human interference” has no discernible role in global warming. They consider carbon dioxide as beneficial for the environment and attribute other factors like aircraft exhaust, cosmic rays, solar winds, magnetic fields and solar intensity as causes of climate change. They state that no definitive factor for climate change has been established yet and any assertive statements about current and future climates should be regarded with skepticism.


IPCC in its 2014 climate change report states, “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” Global warming is primarily a problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This carbon overload is caused mainly when we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas or cut down and burn forests. Burning of fossil fuels to make electricity is the largest source of heat-trapping pollution. Though water vapor is the most abundant heat-trapping gas, it has a short cycle in the atmosphere and cannot build up in the same way carbon dioxide does. Preventing dangerous climate change requires very deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, as well as the use of alternatives to fossil fuels worldwide.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement was made within the UNFCCC to deal with climate change by reducing greenhouse gases emissions starting in 2020. So far, 114 out of 197 countries have ratified with the agreement and vouched to cut down emission. On September 2016, the United States of America joined the Paris agreement along with China, another big emission producing country. President Obama called it a top concern and said “For all the challenges that we face, the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other challenge”. In contrast, president-elect Donald Trump has shown a skeptic view on this matter and has described climate change as “bullshit” and a “hoax. He vowed to dismantle the EPA and withdraw United States from the Paris Agreement to reduce the damage on economy created by climate change alarmists. However, there are a handful of elected members who offer some hope to fight the cause of climate change in coming years. Five candidates with strong climate credentials won offices in Congress, and they have impressive personal and political backgrounds. In the present situation it’s critical that the world stays on course with rational, prompt and comprehensive action to mitigate climate change.

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December 8, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 16, 2016

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By: Sterling Payne, B.Sc.

Energy change inventory, 1971-2010 License: Creative Commons

Global Warming

Oceans are absorbing almost all of the globe’s excess heat

Climate change is a massive point of interest in public health. As trapped energy in the atmosphere continues to warm the earth, global ice sheets are diminishing, average temperatures are rising, and weather patterns are becoming more erratic. These changes can both directly and indirectly affect public health in a negative way.

A recent report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that global ocean surface temperatures have steadily increased in the past century. The massive increase in surface temperature stems from oceans absorbing almost 90% of excess heat that is trapped in the atmosphere due to accumulation of greenhouse gases. Warming oceans lead to the melting of ice and increases in global sea levels, as well as changes in lifestyle of marine species, if not driving them to complete extinction. For example, ice sheets used by polar bears for breeding and hunting are available for less time each year, effectively shortening the time in which the species can be most productive.

The IUCN report adds to a seemingly endless pile of evidence that points to human-induced climate change as a very real thing. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it will be interesting to see how each candidate addresses science, and to what degree of significance they assign human-induced climate change. In the interim, here are some helpful tips for reducing your carbon footprint! (Tim Wallace, The New York Times)

Antibiotic Resistance

Use antibiotics wisely

“Neosporin” is the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I get a small cut or abrasion. Sporting the antibiotics neomycin, bacitracin, and polymyxin B, the tiny yellow tube is a breath of relief when trying to prevent an infection. However, after applying my gel-like defense, my thoughts almost always jump to the topic of antibiotic resistance. The quick doubling time of many bacterial species, paired with heavy use of antibiotics, gives rise to antibiotic-resistant strains that are no longer affected by humans’ number-one go-to. As Peter Jørgensen and others state in a Nature comment piece, killing all bacteria is not an option, because our bodies also rely on the microbiome to function properly. Antibiotics don’t recognize the healthy bacteria from the harmful, and when they’re used, simply kill everything.

The double-edge nature of antibiotics paired with growing levels of drug-resistant bacteria makes for a public health issue of paramount importance, one that will be addressed at the UN high-level meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance on September 21, 2016. Jørgensen and others feel that this meeting absolutely needs to address the positive roles of bacteria and the microbiome, and how they are helpful to human survival. The authors propose various strategies for maintaining the resilience of the human microbiome to resistance, such as holding agricultural companies accountable and lessening their use of antibiotics for animal growth, educating the public on antibiotic uses and how resistance develops, and strengthening collaboration between global organizations. All-in-all, the world needs to recognize the impact of bacteria, both positive and negative, on humans and the world we live in. For a visual, informative view on resistance development, watch this video showcasing an experiment conducted by individuals at the Harvard Medical School and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. (Peter S. Jørgensen, Nature Comments)

Public Health

No driver? Bring it on. How Pittsburgh became Uber’s testing ground

I am hard-pressed to think of a situation that defines “science policy” more than the self-driving car trials being conducted by Uber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, September 14, 2016, Uber rolled out a fleet of around 100 autonomous vehicles to pick up passengers and transport them throughout the city. Though autonomous, each vehicle will have a driver to take control if need be, as well as an engineer to monitor the self-driving system. Despite human additions, the job of getting riders from point A to point B will mostly be up to the vehicle itself. Will Knight, senior editor for the MIT Technology Review, stated the following about his self-driving Uber trip: “I mostly felt pretty safe. However, several times the person behind the wheel needed to take control: once so the car didn’t become stuck behind a truck, and once to avoid another vehicle making a sudden turn”. It will be interesting to see how other riders react, knowing that for the most part, the car is driving without any human input.

Transportation is a large matter of public health. Regardless of the method (bus, train, personal car, etc.), the safety of the people being transported is the highest priority. With the recent death of driver using a Tesla in autopilot mode, I expect the public to be healthily hesitant regarding the deployment/testing of self-driving vehicles. Some Pittsburgh residents feel exactly this way about the current Uber trials. As autonomous transportation moves forward, safety will be at the forefront of all efforts. For some, this means taking the human out of the equation completely. With no shortage of personal vehicles on the road today, autonomous vehicles need to have benefits, and safety absolutely needs to be one of them. (Cecilia Kang, The New York Times)

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September 16, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 9, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: pixabay


DNA Data Storage

In a recent Nature News article, Andy Extance described the growing need for novel data storage methods and materials. It is estimated that between 2013 and 2020 there will be a tenfold increase in digital information, requiring 44 trillion gigabytes of storage. This is a number that is difficult to comprehend, but it’s magnitude and the rapid rate of digital data growth are put in context by a second, more shocking, estimate: if the expansion of digital information continues at the forecasted rates the amount of data requiring storage in 2040 will require “10 to 100 times the expected supply of microchip-grade silicon.” For this reason, researchers have begun considering alternative data storage materials including DNA, which is able to store information at an impressive density; it is estimated that 1 kg of DNA would be sufficient to store the world’s digital archives. DNA is also stable – while there is data loss from hard disks after less than ten years of storage, Nick Goldman, a researcher pioneering DNA data storage at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), notes that in 2013, researchers successfully read the genome of a horse that had been trapped in permafrost for 700,000 years. But there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome before we are able to stream our favorite show out of a test tube. These hurdles include: 1) it is slow to read and (especially) to write DNA sequences, 2) DNA synthesis is error prone, 3) DNA synthesis is currently expensive and 4) it is difficult to specifically access desired information stored within DNA. There have been exciting advances over the last few years from researchers at EBI, Harvard, the University of Washington, and Microsoft that begin to address these problems. This year, researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington reported successfully storing and retrieving 200 megabytes of data in DNA. This is a far throw from the 44 trillion gigabytes of storage we will require in 2020, but progress in science is non-linear and the need for alternative storage media will motivate the growth of this exciting field. (Andy Extance, Nature News)


Oklahoma Shuts Down Wastewater Injection Wells Following Earthquake

There is a significant amount of wastewater that is released in the process of extracting oil and gas from traditional and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) wells. One way to dispose of this wastewater is to inject it deep into the earth’s crust. As oil production has increased within the continental United States within the last few years, wastewater injection has increased in stride. Recent evidence suggests that wastewater injection into rock formations alters pre-existing stresses within faults, in some cases leading to slippage that results in an earthquake. A recent article by Niraj Chokshi and Henry Fountain for the New York Times reported that on September 3rd, Oklahoma experienced a 5.6-magnitude earthquake – tying the state’s previous record for its most severe earthquake set in 2011. In response, Oklahoma government officials ordered the shutdown of three dozen wastewater injection wells in the area most affected by the earthquake. The quake comes amid an impressive increase in earthquake frequency for the state. In 2009, there were only three earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater, but in 2015, this number increased to over 900. To address this increase, state officials ordered a reduction in wastewater injection last year with the hope of decreasing earthquake activity. To date in 2016 there have been over 400 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater in Oklahoma. While it is widely accepted that oil and gas production and the associated wastewater injection have set off a number of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states, it remains unclear if last Saturday’s earthquake was the result of this activity. In the future, additional monitoring of injection wells will provide valuable data to inform decisions on the placement and operation of wastewater injection wells. (Niraj Chokshi and Henry Fountain, New York Times)


Early Support for Amyloid Plaques as the Causative Agent of Alzheimer’s Disease

As humans are living longer, Alzheimer’s disease is becoming an increasingly significant public health problem. The prevailing hypothesis is that aggregation of proteins such as amyloid-β (Aβ) into larger “plaques” leads to Alzheimer’s disease, but there is still no direct evidence to demonstrate that Aβ plaques cause Alzheimer’s disease. In a Nature News & Views article this week, Eric M. Reiman, summarizes the results of an article published in the same journal, which showed that a human antibody, called aducanumab, was able to reduce Aβ plaques in a dose-dependent manner in a small, 12-month placebo-controlled human trial. Though other Aβ-targeting therapies have successfully reduced Aβ aggregates, the most tantalizing result of this study comes from early exploratory analysis of the trial data, which suggested – based on a study population that is too small to make definitive conclusions – that higher doses of aducanumab and larger reductions in Aβ plaques were associated with slower cognitive decline. Before accepting the hypothesis that Aβ plaques cause Alzheimer’s disease, it will be critical to repeat the experiment in larger clinical trials appropriately powered to measure the impact of antibody treatment and plaque reduction on cognitive decline. The study authors also noticed that high doses of antibody were sometimes associated with the inflammation within the brain, causing them to limit the maximum antibody dose tested. Overall, these are exciting results, which, if confirmed in larger clinical trials, would provide much-needed clarity about the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease and inform future treatments. (Eric M. Reiman, Nature News & Views)

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September 9, 2016 at 9:20 am