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Science Policy Around the Web – October 2, 2015

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

Health Policy Conflict of Interest

Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets

Coca-Cola recently released statements indicating that they have given more than $118 million in funding to health-related projects with approximately $22 million allocated to health research. A complete list of projects funded by Coco-Cola can be found here. The release of these numbers is presumed to be in response to growing fears and complaints regarding the possibility of biased influence of food and beverage companies support on nutrition research. Additionally, the New York Times reports that Coco-Cola recently used $1.5 million to help create the Global Energy Balance Network, a non-profit that emphasizes the importance of physical activity rather than diet in weight control and maintenance. The Global Energy Balance Network has partnered internationally with scientists to help spread the message that “weight conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.” Conversely, health experts state that Coco-Cola’s message is misleading and is an effort to reduce the responsibility that companies like Coco-Cola have played in developing sugary drinks that contribute to obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Sales of sugary drinks have significantly sank in the last few years and companies like Coco-Cola are likely using this new tactic to encourage health-conscience consumers to focus more one exercise than diet in relation to weight loss and maintenance but clearly brings up concerns about the ethics of this tactic. (Anahad O’Connor, New York Times)


Dr. Insel to leave NIH, headed for Google

The director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Dr. Tom Insel, recently announced that he will be leaving his position after 13 years to join the Google Life Science team (GLS). During his time at the NIH, Dr. Insel is credited for shifting the field of mental health toward a more biology based, biomarker approach. In particular, Dr. Insel’s work at the NIH has focused on trials demonstrating that many of the medications that are currently available to treat mental illness are not as effective as previous thought. When asked what type of projects Dr. Insel will be leading at GLS, he responded that the projects were currently still undefined but would likely involve the development of technology that could aid in public health by tracking and predicting behavior related to mental illnesses. Tom also stated that the “GLS mission is about creating technology that can help with earlier detection, better prevention, and more effective management of serious health conditions. I am joining the team to explore how this mission can be applied to mental illness.” Google Life Sciences is currently a division of Google X and will soon become a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., a conglomerate of several companies linked to Google.

NASA Discovery

Water on Mars

Scientist at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) confirmed this week that they have identified liquid water on Mars. The news was announced by James L. Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division. This news is especially exciting to those who are interested in examining whether life exists on other planets. “We haven’t been able to answer the question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?’ But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have, I think, great opportunities in the right locations on mars to thoroughly investigate that”, Green states. The house committee on Science, Space, and Technology held hearings on Tuesday titled “Astrobiology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth in the Next Decade” with the mission of reviewing scientific methods to be used to search for life, examine recent scientific discoveries in the field of astrobiology, and to assess the prospects of finding life beyond Earth over the next decade. Much of the hearings will focus on the Mars Exploration Program. (Kenneth Chang, New York Times)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

October 2, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 11, 2015

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

Photo credit: via

International Policy

A deal with Iran leads to new hope for science

On July 14th, six countries and Iran agreed on a nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, that would increase the amount of time necessary for Iran to produce enough fissile material to produce a nuclear bomb. Should the Iran nuclear deal pass scrutiny by the United States Congress, in addition to loosening sanctions on Iran, the deal may also give Iran the opportunity to expand scientific programs and develop scientific collaborations with Western countries. In agreement for dismantling the nuclear program, Iranian scientists could have the opportunity to work with scientists across the globe on issues relate to nuclear fusion, astrophysics, and the development of radioisotopes for the treatment of cancer. Additionally, the deal includes converting one of Iran’s uranium enrichment sites, known as Fordow, into an international nuclear, physics, and technology center. Fordow is located beneath a mountain and its location is concerning because it would be difficult to destroy. Re-purposing the location into a science center could be a positive alternative. While the exact research that will be conducted at Fordow has yet to be determined, Iran plans to invite proposals for projects and will host an international workshop to review and determine which projects will be chosen. Russia has also agreed to help Iran convert the existing uranium centrifuges at Fordow into centrifuges that have the ability to produce isotopes for medical imaging. An additional part of this agreement would include strengthening Iran in other areas of science such as neutrino astronomy and fusion research, and allowing Iran to participate in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. Of course, Iranian scientists will be restricted in their ability to participate in some types of nuclear research such as studying metallic uranium and plutonium but overall these terms provide Iranian scientists with hope for the future of science in Iran. (Richard Stone, ScienceInsider and Declan Butle, Nature News)

Science and Ethics

APA overhauling policies and leadership after torture report

For the last five years, the American Psychological Association (APA) has denied involvement in United States government’s use of torture to interrogate detainees. However a recent external investigation commissioned by the APA reports that APA psychologists and association officials were in fact involved in the interrogations lead by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the George W. Bush administration. The report from Former inspector general, David Hoffman reports that the APA assisted the United States government in allowing torture of detained individuals. The APA has since released statements indicating that they will change their policies including the prohibition of psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. In addition to announcing these new policies, much of the APA leadership has resigned their positions. Although president Obama since banned interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration, interviews conducted by psychologists are still widely used by the United States. Should these new policies be adopted by the APA, interrogation techniques would need to change. (, ScienceInsider and James Risen, NY Times)

Military Fitness

The Unites States Army takes a scientific view at preparedness for combat

What fitness and combat tests best predict whether a service member is prepared for combat? And more specifically, what tests best judge a female service member’s ability to carry out certain tasks? As the United States government begins to allow female service members to participate more in combat operations, questions such as these become important given that women physically have smaller hearts, skeletons, smaller muscle mass, and a greater percentage of body fat relative to their male counterparts. In order to answer these questions and help identify the best predictors of those who will most successfully be involved in combat, the US Air Force has designed a study to be led by exercise physiologist, Neal Buamgartner. Buamgartner has already recruited 63 female and 109 male airmen to participate in the study. The subjects will complete fitness tests as well as combat and rescue simulations and Baumgartner plans to examine the data for correlations between measures of physical fitness. Such correlations might be “does the ability to do crunches predict how fast an airman can climb a rope ladder, or do push-ups correlate better?” From this data, he will also develop standards to to judge whether an airman is physically fit for combat. Although Baumgartner’s work is geared at setting standards for all airmen these data may specifically inform standards for women in combat. Additional concerns regarding women serving in combat positions include their increased risk for musculoskeletal injuries. More research examining the differences between men and women in combat training may provide greater insight into how these injuries can be better prevented. (Kelly Servick, Science News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 11, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 17, 2013

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By: Jennifer Plank

photo credit: ynse via photopin cc

photo credit: ynse via photopin cc

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Will insurance cover genetic testing, preventative surgery? – This week, Angelina Jolie was in the news following her op-ed piece discussing her preventative double mastectomy once she learned that she had a mutated BRCA1 gene. Women with a mutation in either of the BRCA genes are at an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Due to their patent, Myriad Genetics is the only company allowed to perform genetic testing on either of the BRCA genes resulting in the test being very expensive- on average, BRCA genetic screening costs approximately $4000 when not covered by insurance. Doctors recommend that a patient with a positive result receive yearly mammograms and/or MRIs, adding thousands of dollars to the cost of preventative care. Once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, BRCA genetic testing will be classified as preventative care and require no out of pocket costs for the patient. (Melanie Hicken)

Scientists report first success in cloning human stem cells – 17 years after the cloning of Dolly the sheep, scientists generated stem cells from human skin cells. Until recently, human cells have been unable to be reprogrammed using “nuclear transfer”, a technique that has been effective in many other species. Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a scientist at Oregon Health and Science University, has used the technique to reprogram human skin cells into cells resembling embryonic stem cells. This new advance in technology provides another source for deriving embryonic stem cells to be used for stem cell based therapies. (Alice Park)

Supreme Court supports Monsanto in seed-patent case – In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court opined that farmers cannot use Monsanto’s genetically altered soybeans to make new seeds without paying the company. According to the opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the ruling was narrow in scope and will not automatically be extended to every self-replicating product. Normally, farmers who buy soybeans from Monsanto must sign a contract stating that they will not harvest seeds from one season’s crop to use in following seasons. This ensures that the farmers will buy new seeds yearly. However, in this case, the farmer obtained seeds through a second-hand source and determined which seeds were Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds. He then harvested seeds from those plants to use in subsequent seasons. The Supreme Court ruled that the farmer must pay Monsanto over $84,000. (Adam Litpak)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 17, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 28, 2011

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By jeltovski on Used with permission

By:  Rebecca Cerio

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Cooking in the Classroom Helps Kids Learn, Changes Food Attitudes – An evaluation of the Cooking with Kids program shows that fruit and vegetable tastings and cooking classes integrated into other core curricula (history, science, etc.) introduces kids to new, healthy foods, changes their views of cooking as “chores”, and helps them understand the curriculum material better.    (via

Congress Blocks New School Lunch Rules – The USDA proposed new rules to make school lunches healthier by increasing fruits and vegetables and decreasing starch and salt.  Critics said that the new proposals were too restrictive and would result in lunches kids wouldn’t eat.  Congress listened.  (via The New York Times, by Ron Nixon)

Debate Intensifies on Usefulness and Ethics of Chimpanzee Research – Is invasive ape research useful?  Is it ethical?  Would a ban on invasive great ape research (such as the Great Ape Protection Act, now in Congress) be an ethical protection of primate species or an unethical roadblock to cures for human disease?   An NIH report due this year on the usefulness of chimps in research will hopefully bring some data to the debate table. (via The New York Times, by James Gorman)

Have an interesting science policy link to share?  Let us know in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 28, 2011 at 10:53 am

Synthetic Biology and Biodefense: Regulating the Unknown

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By Rebecca Cerio

The field of synthetic biology–most broadly described as the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature–has been quietly advancing ever since the discovery of restriction enzymes in the 1970s.  Being able to cut-and-paste DNA segments in combinations different than those created by nature opened the door to molecular biology and the burgeoning biotechnology field.  Such technologies, as well as our understanding of DNA functional and regulatory elements, now allow us to genetically engineer organisms to produce needed medicines, to bioengineer pest- and chemical-resistant food crops, and to sequence and study the genome of any organism for useful and harmful mutations.

Recently, the J. Craig Venter Institute’s announcement that they can chemically synthesize an entire, functional genome in the lab has led to new public awareness of the potential power, benefits, and dangers of synthetic biology.  One question raised is:  just because we can, does that mean that we should?
Or, from a regulatory standpoint, just because it is possible, should it be allowed?  Synthetic biology technology can be used for legitimate scientific purposes (i.e., producing vaccines) and to threaten public safety  (i.e., producing deadly pathogens).  But what are the actual, plausible risks and benefits of synthetic biology, beyond movie-plot scenarios and inflammatory rhetoric about “playing God”? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 4, 2011 at 9:19 am

Posted in Essays

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Science in the Media: To Fact Check, or Not to Fact Check?

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Photo by tecknare, used with permission

By: Rebecca Cerio

Science policy demands, at its very core, communication of scientific information.  Making sure that science is distributed to and understood by the people who need it, whether they be politicians or the public at large, is the interface where science policy meets science journalism.

Communicating science to the public can often be a challenge.  Science is a highly specialized, highly technical field, and science journalists often summarize the science involved in new findings for brevity, clarity, and that elusive “interestingness”.  However, there are always examples of editing gone too far:  experimental designs mangled, quotes cherry picked out of context, conclusions and significance misrepresented.  It’s easy for scientists to roll their eyes, shake their heads, and blame it on journalists who don’t understand science.

However, a recent discussion started by David Kroll on PLoS Blogs has pointed out that sometimes it’s the scientists who don’t understand journalism.

Two camps have emerged on this topic, as seen in the text and comments on Kroll’s original post and also exemplified in this commentary by Ananyo Bhattacharya, the chief online editor of Nature.

In one camp are the scientists.  Scientists’ main experiences have often been with scientific publishing, where everything is peer reviewed, properly qualified, and fact-checked to death.  Inaccurate media articles about science often strike them as embarrassing and/or frustrating.  After all, obviously the journalist didn’t understand the science and didn’t care enough about their article to fact-check it with the scientist they were interviewing.  This is often seen as a failing of the journalist and of the editor that let the article be published.

On the other side are the journalists, who argue from a completely different place.  In the comments on the Kroll post, George Johnson laid bare the crux of their argument:

The ethics that have been instilled in me over many years is that it is forbidden to show unpublished copy to a source and that getting approval for the speaker’s quotations is a violation of the professional standards of journalism.  [emphasis added]

The source has already given blanket approval to use anything she might say when she agreed to go on the record.  Nothing more is needed.  Also, journalists are there to take facts and turn them into a story for their audience.  They are under no obligation to write something that the source likes.  In fact, taking a finding and reporting it in a way that the scientist might disapprove of (for instance, quoting a vaccinologist in an anti-vaccine piece) is their right.  It’s what freedom of the press is all about.  Why should scientists get the right to fact-check (and possibly influence) stories when, say, politicians do not?  If journalists allowed their sources to influence their writing, that would inject the source’s bias into the piece.

Science journalist and popular blogger Ed Yong argued both sides of the issue in his reply to Kroll about fact-checking in science journalism,

The downside of doing this is that some people start asking for wholesale changes, tonal changes, or start going back on what they actually said (and meant).

The upside, and I think this is significant, is that while journalists can fact-check specific things, we don’t always know the ways in which we can screw up. Unknown unknowns, and all that. An innocuous choice of word can make a sentence completely wrong and it can take an expert’s eye to spot that. 

In a very real way, this entire debate is a value judgment between scientific freedom and journalistic freedom.  Scientists want the freedom to have their work reported accurately, while journalists want the freedom to interpret the facts and present a story without interference.  Everyone can agree that there is a balance to be struck.  Finding this balance will minimize the possibility for inaccurate and biased reporting and raise the bar for science writing.

Practical suggestions from all sides for finding this balance include going to an independent scientific source for fact-checking, allowing a source to fact-check only relevant portions of the copy, or simply being alert for and resistant to attempts to alter the article’s tone or conclusions in the source’s suggestions.  According to John Rennie‘s comment on Kroll’s post, the decision ultimately lies with the journalist.  His opinion?

Sources can ask for any changes they like. I’ll only make ones that I think are right for the story. If writers aren’t prepared to stare down their sources over that principle, they shouldn’t be sending sources anything.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 29, 2011 at 11:37 pm


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