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Science Policy Around the Web – April 21, 2017

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By: Rachel F Smallwood, PhD

Source: pixabay

Scientific Awareness

Earth Day and the March for Science

This Saturday, April 22, is Earth Day and the day scientists have chosen to hold demonstrations in the name of science. The March for Science primary demonstration will be held in Washington, D.C., with over 500 satellite events in other locations around the world. According to their website, the goal of the marches, rallies, and teach-ins is to “defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.” In a time where there has been increasing disregard and disdain for sound scientific research, scientists and science enthusiasts are passionate about raising awareness of the importance of scientific research and the funding and support of that research. Many scientists are also hoping to clear up commonly held stereotypes and allow people to see the diversity in scientific careers and that careers can be collaborative, interesting, and enjoyable.

There are those, however, who disagree that these demonstrations and events are the way to bolster funding and awareness. The March for Science professes to be non-partisan, but there are some who see it as a chance to protest against President Trump and his controversial views and statements on various scientific matters. Those who oppose the march feel that there could be unintended consequences for speaking out against a political figure or party, and many believe science should remain objective and not politicized in general. There are many supporters of the march who agree that science should remain politically unbiased but are further motivated to march given the recent budget proposals that would significantly cut funding to the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Not surprisingly, there will also be scientists working at the March for Science. Sociologists from the University of Maryland will be conducting surveys of march attendees. Their goal is to learn more about the people who protest in support of science: their motivations, work backgrounds, and political activism levels. They hope to better understand our current political culture and attitudes about science, as well as see what kind of impact these demonstrations have in the future. (Adam Frank, NPR)

Vaccination

California Vaccination Rate Hits New High after Tougher Immunization Law

Following an outbreak of measles in Disneyland in late 2014, California passed a law that abolished the right for parents to refuse to have their children vaccinated based on personal beliefs. The students enrolling in kindergarten for the 2016-2017 academic year were the first that this law applied to. Comparing this year to the previous, vaccination rates increased from 92.8 percent to 95.6 percent, making this California’s highest year for vaccination rates since the new set of requirements was instated fifteen years ago. This rate is considered high enough to prevent measles transmission which, after being eliminated in 2000, has reemerged as a risk due to an increase in parents exempting their children from receiving vaccinations because of personal beliefs.

California still has a number of at-risk students and residents, however. These requirements have only been in place for the current school year, meaning older class years still have many students whose parents opted to not vaccinate them based on personal beliefs. There are even more unvaccinated adults who were already through school before the current set of requirements. California is still being vigilant to protect the unvaccinated. An unvaccinated high school student in Laguna Beach contracted measles earlier this month, and the school quickly moved to identify other unvaccinated students in the school and bar them from returning until it could be assured that transmission would not occur. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide a recommended schedule for vaccination of children (and adolescents and adults) who have no health contraindications. To provide the maximum resistance to measles, a highly contagious disease, the CDC recommends vaccinating between 12-15 months and again between 4-6 years of age. It will likely take some time before the long-term effect of the new law can be observed. (Lena H. Sun, The Washington Post)

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Scientific Activism: Voting to Speed Up Discovery with Preprint Publishing

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: Public Library of Science, via Wikimedia

         The election of Donald Trump to the Oval Office and the early actions of his administration have sparked a wave of protests in support of women’s rights and immigration, among other issues. Like other citizens, scientists have some cause to be concerned about the administration’s early actions that reveal a general disregard for facts and scientific evidence. In response, organizers have planned the March for Science for this Saturday, April 22nd, as an opportunity for people to gather in cities around the world to voice their support for factual information and scientific research. And while it is important to denounce the actions of the Trump administration that are harmful to science and health, it may be even more critical to acknowledge the underlying partisan divisions that created a niche for his rhetoric and to begin the difficult work of bridging the divide. For example, a Pew Research Center poll from 2015 indicates that 89% of liberal Democrats believe government investment in basic science pays off in the long-run, while only 61% of conservative Republicans feel the same way. Additionally, American adults with less knowledge of scientific topics are more likely to believe that government funding of basic science does not pay off. This suggests that improved science education and outreach will be important in building public support for scientific research. However, scientists often lead very busy lives and have little time outside of their professional activities to devote to valuable pursuits like science outreach. How, then, might scientists work towards building a better relationship with the public?

The products of science – knowledge, medicines, technology – are the clearest evidence of the value of research, and they are the best arguments for continued research funding. Efficiency in science is good not only for scientists hoping to make a name for themselves, but also for the public, who as the primary benefactors of academic research, must benefit from the products of that research. If taxpayers’ demand for scientific inquiry dissipates because of a perceived poor return on their investment, then the government, which supposedly represents these taxpayers, will limit its investment in science. Therefore, in addition to communicating science more clearly to the public, scientists and funding agencies should ensure that science is working efficiently and working for the public.

Information is the primary output of research, and it is arguably the most essential input for innovation. Not all research will lead to a new product that benefits the public, but most research will yield a publication that may be useful to other scientists. Science journals play a critical role in coordinating peer review and disseminating new research findings, and as the primary gatekeepers to this information, they are in the difficult position of balancing accessibility to the content of their journals with the viability of their business. This position deserves some sympathy in the case of journals published by scientific societies, which are typically non-profit organizations that perform valuable functions including scientific outreach, education and lobbying. However, for-profit journals are less justified in making a significant profit out of restricting access to information that was, in most cases, obtained through publicly-funded research.

Restricting access to information gathered in the course of research risks obscuring the value of research to a public that is already skeptical about investing in basic science, and it slows down and increases the cost of innovation. In light of this, there is growing pressure on publishers to provide options for open-access publishing. In 2008, the National Institutes of Health adopted a public access policy, which requires that “investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, that the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.” This policy was extended through an executive order from the Obama Administration in 2013 to include all federal agencies with research budgets greater than $100 million, with additional requirements to improve accessibility.

These requirements are changing scientific publishing and will improve access to information, but they remain limited relative to the demand for access, as evidenced by the existence of paper pirating websites, and the success of open access journals like PLoS and eLife.  Additionally, other funding agencies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust have imposed even more stringent requirements for open access. Indeed, researchers will find a spectrum of open-access policies among the available journals, with the most rapid access to information allowed by so-called ‘preprint’ publishers like biorxiv.org. Given that many research manuscripts require months or years of revision and re-revision during submission to (usually multiple) journals, preprint servers accelerate the dissemination of information that is potentially valuable for innovation, by allowing researchers to post manuscripts prior to acceptance in a peer-reviewed journal. Many journals have now adopted explicit policies for handling manuscripts that have been previously submitted to bioRxiv, with many of them treating these manuscripts favorably.

Given that most journals accept manuscripts that have been previously published on bioRxiv, and some journals even look to bioRxiv for content, there is little incentive to submit to journals without also submitting to bioRxiv. If the goal is, as stated above, to improve the transparency and the efficiency of research in order to make science work for the public, then scientists should take every opportunity to make their data as accessible as possible, and as quickly as possible. Similarly, funding agencies should continue to push for increased access by validating preprint publications as acceptable evidence of productivity in progress reports and grant applications, and incentivizing grant recipients to simultaneously submit manuscripts to preprint servers and peer-reviewed journals. Scientists have many options when they publish, and by voting for good open-access practices with their manuscripts, they have the opportunity to guide the direction of the future of scientific publishing. These small, but important, actions may improve the vitality of research and increase the rate at which discoveries tangibly benefit taxpayers, and, in combination with science outreach and education, may ultimately strengthen the relationship between scientists and the public.

March for Science this Saturday, if it feels like the right thing to do, and then strive to make science work better for everyone by sharing the fruits of research.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 20, 2017 at 11:44 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 8, 2013

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By: Tara Burke

Photo credit: Ryan Thompson via photopin cc

Photo credit: Ryan Thompson via photopin cc

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

F.D.A. Ruling Would All But Eliminate Trans Fats – Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration outlined measures to rid the nation’s food supply of trans fats, a major contributing factor to heart disease. The announcement ends a thirty-year fight by public health advocates against trans fats, which are created when liquid oil is treated with hydrogen gas to make a solid. The Institute of Medicine has found that there is no allowable amount of consumption of artificial trans fats and therefore, the FDA recommends that trans fats be removed from the legal category “generally recognized as safe”. The complete removable of trans fats from the American diet is expected to significantly cut down on health care costs and heart attacks. (Sabrina Tavernise)

U.K. Researchers Launch Open-Access Genomes Project – The United Kingdom announced this week the establishment of a British Personal Genome Project (PGP-UK). This program will recruit volunteers to provide DNA as well as health data; both DNA and health data will be available with no restrictions on their use. Britain’s PGP, headed by Stephan Beck from University College London, stems from a 2005 Harvard study. While the Harvard PGP currently has less than 200 genomes available, the study has many volunteers waiting. Other countries continue to see the value in personal genome databases as a way of furthering our understanding of DNA’s contribution to disease as Britain’s PGP joins other programs currently underway in Canada and Korea and one launching soon in Germany. (Elizabeth Pennisi)

More Asteroid Strikes Are Likely, Scientists Say – Traditionally, asteroid strikes have been thought of as an extremely rare event. However, in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists estimate that asteroid strikes may occur as often as every decade or two. These findings, along with the recent asteroid explosion over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk are elevating the topic of planetary defense. The United Nations is expected to recommend the establishment of an International Asteroid Warning Network, a way for countries to share information. They are also likely to recommend an advisory group to explore technologies that can deflect asteroids. (Kenneth Chang)

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November 8, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 22, 2013

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By: Jennifer Plank

photo credit: Rick Eh? via photopin cc

photo credit: Rick Eh? via photopin cc

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

Mice Fall Short As Test Subjects for Humans’ Deadly Ills – Data obtained from mouse models of sepsis, burns, and trauma have been misleading. Nearly 150 drugs developed to treat sepsis in humans have failed. A manuscript published in PNAS last month demonstrated why- mice have a condition that looks similar to human sepsis but is very different biologically. The decade long study analyzed genes used by white blood cells when responding to sepsis. The investigators found a panel of genes that were upregulated in response to sepsis in humans and then analyzed the response in mice to see if a similar panel of genes were involved. Surprisingly, there were no similarities between organisms. Additionally, in samples from human patients, a similar panel of genes were involved in the response to burns, sepsis, and trauma suggesting that finding a drug to treat one condition will treat all 3. While in many situations, mice are an ideal genetic model to human disease, this work suggests that mouse models cannot be used to develop drugs for all human conditions.  (Gina Kolata)

How To Find a Food Desert Near You – A food desert is an area where it is difficult to access large grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable food. To identify regions where access to healthy foods is limited, the USDA has recently released the Food Access Research Atlas.  Using the atlas, you can identify regions where there is low access to grocery stores. Additionally, income data has been incorporated into the map to compare low access to low income regions. (Nancy Shute)

Inequality Quantified: Mind the Gender Gap – While the number of women working in science and engineering fields has increased, universities still employ more men than women in STEM fields, and men still earn significantly more in these fields. Currently, only 21 percent of science professors and 5 percent of engineering professors are women. One potential cause of this problem is that a larger percentage of women quit scientific careers in the earlier stages to raise a family. Additionally, women only make 82 percent of what male scientists earn in the United States, and this gap is larger in European countries. Many universities are conscious of the need to correct the gender gap. (Helen Shen)

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March 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 16, 2012

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By: Jennifer Plank

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

What the world can learn from Denmark’s failed fat tax – Last October, the Danish tax ministry added a tax of 16 kroner ($2.70) per kilogram of saturated fat in foods from milk to butter to frozen pizza. The tax resulted in increased costs to consumers, increased administrative costs for companies, and a loss of jobs due to Danish citizens leaving the country to buy fatty foods. Therefore, the tax ministry decided to scrap the tax law. Olga Khazan reviews the Danish “fat tax” and similar taxes elsewhere- including the soda tax in New York.

From Physics to Politics: Mr. Foster goes to Washington – Citizens from Illinois’s 11th district recently elected physicist Bill Foster to the House of Representatives. After spending years in the lab contributing to findings such as the top-quark or co-inventing a system to increase the efficiency of the Tevatron, Dr. Foster decided to apply his analytical thinking skills to political issues. Scientific American interviewed the newly elected Congressman who encourages other scientists to become involved in the political process. (JR Minkel)

Call for global crackdown on fake medications – According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly one in ten medications sold in poorer countries are fake, and strikingly, one-third of all malaria medications are fake.  While richer countries do not face this problem to the same extent, they are not immune from the effects of falsified drugs. For example, a contaminated drug supply led to an outbreak of meningitis that has killed 16 people in the United States. A recent article in the British Medical Journal outlines an approach that can be taken by the WHO to inhibit the sale of counterfeit medication. (Michelle Roberts)

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November 16, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 8, 2012

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photo credit: Martino’s doodles via photopin cc

By: Jennifer Plank

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

As Dengue Fever Sweeps India, A Slow Response Stirs Experts’ Fears  While the Indian government will not acknowledge the magnitude of the Dengue Fever epidemic in their country, the virus spread by mosquitoes is affecting hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. In New Delhi, India’s capital, hospitals are overcrowded with patients affected with the disease. Interestingly, experts estimate that millions of people have been sickened with Dengue in 2012 while officials for the Indian government estimate that only approximately 30,000 individuals have been affected thus far in 2012. This underestimation results in insufficient policies to reduce spreading of the disease and delays in developing vaccines to prevent Dengue infection. (Gardiner Harris)

Warmer Still: Extreme Climate Predictions Appear Most Accurate – While most scientists agree that the temperature on earth is increasing, the extent of the increase has remained a point of contention. A new study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research suggests that the more extreme predictions may actually be true resulting in temperature increase of 8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Such a temperature increase will cause higher seas, disappearing coastlines, droughts, and floods (Brian Vastag). To try to circumvent these catastrophic events, some initiatives are underway in an attempt to reduce global climate change. Some states, such as California and Michigan are beginning to take measures to reduce global climate change.  Additionally, a village on the coast of British Columbia dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the ocean in what some are calling a “rogue climate change experiment” to cause a bloom of plankton to capture greenhouse gases.

NIH’s New Translational Chief on How to Solve Pharma’s Woes – Last December, Congress approved the $575 million National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) which has been criticized due to fear that funding for NCATS will reduce the funds available for basic biomedical research. Dr. Christopher Austin, a developmental neurogeneticist with experience in the private sector, became the director of NCATS in September. Recently, Dr. Austin sat down with ScienceInsider to provide insight to the mission of NCATS and respond to recent criticism. (Jocelyn Kaiser)

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November 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Earthquakes and the (non-)science of risk prediction

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photo credit: Waifer X via photopin cc

By:  Rebecca Cerio

One of the more scientifically bizarre stories lately has been the conviction of Italian scientists and engineers in the L’Aquila earthquake trial.  To summarize, during a swarm of small earthquakes, a government-sponsored panel told the people of the L’Aquila region that the tremors were nothing to worry about and that they were believed to disperse energy and reduce the chance of a larger earthquake.  (In the past, such swarms preceded only a tiny fraction of large earthquakes.)  Six days later, a large earthquake hit the region, killing over 300 people.  The scientists were tried for the deaths of about 30 of those people, who–reassured by the scientists’ words–stayed in their homes when the quake struck, instead of rushing outside to more open, safer ground.

Scientists, predictably, have shook their heads in dismay at the Italian court’s verdict (convictions of manslaughter and 6-year sentences).  They have, understandably, pointed out that there was no way that the scientists could predict an earthquake and that they should not be punished for giving the best advice they could given the data they had.  The prosecution has pointed out that the defendants were not being charged with incorrectly predicting an earthquake but instead incorrectly communicating the RISK of an earthquake.  In essence, the scientists were charged and found guilty of giving people a false sense of security that convinced the victims to change their behavior in an ultimately lethal way.

Whether the scientists gave people bad advice or whether they gave them good advice that simply turned out to be wrong is still unclear and is perhaps something that only Mother Nature would be able to testify about, but it gets right at the crux of a very pointed issue:  how should scientists convey risk and uncertainty about their data to the public, particularly in life-and-death scenarios?  How much responsibility do scientists have to convey that risk accurately?  And what legal blame do scientists have to accept when people interpret and use that data to justify acting in ways that lead to injury or death? Read the rest of this entry »

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October 26, 2012 at 6:50 pm