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Science Policy Around the Web – November 13, 2015

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By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.

World Map – Temperature Trends by NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Climate Policy

Greenhouse gases hit new milestone, fueling worries about climate change

2015 is a milestone year for the Earth’s Environment. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently reported that the average levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) in the early months of 2015. The Met Office and Climatic Research Unit in Britain has reported that the temperature in the first nine months of 2015 exceeded historic norms by 1.02 degree C. These reports are raising serious concerns about global warming. “We are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed,” says WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud. Many scientists agree that the carbon dioxide levels should remain below 400 ppm, but increasing fossil fuel usage has resulted in a steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, going from 278 ppm during pre-industrial times to 397.7 ppm in 2014. “We will soon be living with globally averaged CO2 levels above 400 ppm as a permanent reality,” Jarraud said. Methane and nitrous oxide, two other important greenhouse gases, are also increasing. The long-term implications for the planet, Jarraud says, include higher global temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice, rising sea levels, and increased acidity in oceans.  These reports on carbon dioxide levels, and the increase in the average temperature, come weeks before the start of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where diplomats from over 190 countries will participate in discussions on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. (Joby Warrick, The Washington Post)

Science and Decision-Making

European Commission appoints top scientists to fill policy advice gap

The European Commission has appointed seven prominent scientists to provide the Commission with policy advice. This group is part of the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), and consists of four men and three women from seven different countries and fields, including Polish bioinformatician Janusz Bujnicki, Dutch sociologist Pearl Dykstra, Portuguese material scientist Elvira Fortunato, German physicist and CERN Director Rolf-Dieter Heuer, British climate researcher Julia Slingo, French mathematician and Fields medalist Cédric Villani, and Danish microbiologist Henrik Wegener. “This looks like a good group,” says Anne Glover, the first and only chief scientific adviser (former) of the Commission. “They have scientific credibility as well as a deep knowledge of the ways in which scientific evidence can be used to inform policy as well as the world of politics,” Glover adds. The seven scientists will have their first meeting in January, and the topics of discussion are likely to be dictated by current matters. The SAM also includes a €6 million grant to fund academies and societies to help provide policy advice to the Commission. James Wilsdon from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, though skeptical about how the new group will “safeguard its independence and navigate the political sensitivities that will inevitably arise”, is also optimistic and said that the announcement “is a serious step in the right direction for robust, independent and interdisciplinary scientific advice at the heart of European decision-making.” (Tania Rabesandratana, ScienceInsider)

Public Health Policy

U.S. Smoking Rate Declines, but Poor Remain at Higher Risk

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that smoking has become largely a problem of the poor in the US. Smoking has steadily declined in the last few decades – nearly half the US population smoked in the 1960s, whereas those numbers have declined to 16.8 percent in 2014. However, the differences among various sections of the population are striking. Anti-smoking campaigns have been very successful on a national scale, but the results have not been very encouraging with the poor. While only 5 percent of Americans with a graduate degree smoke, about 43 percent of people with high school equivalency diploma smoke, and the latter figures haven’t changed since 2005, compared to a 26 percent decline in smoking among people with college degrees. Nearly a third of the Americans on Medicaid smoked, in contrast to 13 percent for Americans with private insurance. Smoking among people at or above the poverty line has declined from 21 percent in 2005 to 15 percent in 2014 (a 26 percent decline), whereas it went from 30 percent to 26 percent (a 12 percent decline) for people below the poverty line. Kenneth E. Warner, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says that disparities are the most important issue in smoking. “The people who are politically influential believe the smoking problem has been solved. It’s not in their neighborhoods. Their friends don’t smoke. Those who still smoke are the poor, the disenfranchised, the mentally ill. That’s who we need to focus on”, says Dr. Warner. A proposed federal rule that bans smoking in public housing might be a step toward changing that. (Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times)

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November 13, 2015 at 10:06 am

Science Policy Around the Web – June 5, 2015

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By: Elisavet Serti, Ph.D.

Science Policy

The growing challenges of scientific advising

Scientists are increasingly called upon to share their scientific expertise and help governments shape policies and regulations in response to public health threats, such as the recent Ebola epidemic. During this time, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was interviewed daily and met with high ranking government officials in order to inform the public about the Ebola disease. His job was to specify precautions should be taken, what safety regulations should be established in order to control the epidemic and avoid its spread to the United States, and how infected patients should be treated. This crisis, and the way it was handled by the media, is one of the several examples of the importance of scientific counseling and its challenges. Other scientists that were involved in Ebola research or other infectious diseases were also frequently asked for their scientific perspective.

According to a recent article in Science magazine, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently issued a report entitled Scientific Advice for Policy Making to illuminate the roles and responsibility of scientists in policy decisions. OECD reported that, in emergency situations, media interest “can encourage alternative sources of scientific or expert information to publicize their own diagnoses or forecasts, which can differ significantly from the views of official/mandated scientific advisory structures”. While different scientific perspectives are necessary for the process of public health related issues, “[t]he diversity of solicited and unsolicited advice can be a challenge for decision-makers [and] create confusion in the public realm.” The article concluded that an advising scientist should have some specific qualities before joining the arena of science policy. Today, “[s]cientists find themselves in a policy arena where the interests of a variety of stakeholders have to be balanced: scientists, policy and law makers, regulators, industry, [nongovernmental organizations], the public at large,” the report says. Scientists should therefore “be open to expert opinions coming from outside their selected group,” and recognize “that relevant expertise is often available outside established academic structures.” Finally, scientific advisers should accept and communicate the issue of scientific uncertainty and the need of more research before expressing an absolute opinion. “As a general rule, [they] should explicitly assess uncertainties and communicate and explain them to policy makers,” the report says. “In emergencies or on controversial issues, policy makers and the general public want quick answers from the scientific establishment, and researchers are under pressure to come up with clear-cut advice, even though the uncertainties are often high.” (Elisabeth Pain, Science Careers)

Science and Foreign Policy

Cuba’s scientists are ready to rejoin the international scientific community

Ernesto Altshuler, is a physicist and runs his own research lab in University of Havana, Cuba, one of the world’s more challenging settings for conducting science. The research resources are very poor and there has been a persistent “brain drain”, as the majority of scientists leave the country as soon as they graduate university. Cubans believe that the U.S. embargo, which has been in place for a half-century, is responsible for this scientific crisis; “The embargo is like God. It affects every aspect of life,” says Sergio Jorge-Pastrana, foreign secretary of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba (ACC). The embargo prohibits the import of equipment and supplies made in the United States or with U.S. components, furthermore, the Internet speed is extremely slow and U.S. travel restrictions have hampered academic exchange between the two countries. Dr. Altshuler was interviewed by Richard Stone on behalf of the Science magazine, where he explained that he had to find “alternative” ways to do his research “invading zones where I was not a specialist, looking around for new phenomena with wider eyes, seeing scientific instruments in daily life objects, attacking and retreating from serendipitous findings like a guerrilla.” However, for his studies of granular materials, Altshuler spent about $100 “to obtain the same quality of data” as other researchers who spend millions of dollars on microgravity experiments, says Thorsten Pöschel, a physicist at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. After the historic rapprochement last December, Cuban President Raúl Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced that their nations would strive to overcome mutual hostility and normalize relations. This means that Cuban science is now ready to join the modern world as the revised travel rules ease visits to Cuba for U.S. scientists, and the U.S. Commerce Department can now allow scientific equipment to be freely donated to Cuba, as long as it does not have potential military applications. (Richard Stone, Science)

Multidisciplinary Cancer Research

Immunology and Oncology join hands against the fight of cancer

The standard four options of cancer treatment currently are tumor dissection, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and “targeted therapies” that use antibodies to specifically target the tumor and have the potential to kill it. For a fifth alternative, immunologists and oncologists have collaborated efficiently and presented their latest data on anti-cancer strategies at this year’s meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), in Chicago. A fifth type of cancer treatment that will be based on “immuno-oncology” is likely to be broadly established in clinical practice in the next few years. Like “targeted therapies”, these new approaches often use antibodies; however, the new treatments do not directly attack cancerous cells, but instead they boost the immune responses against them. Cancer cells seem to use strategies of manipulating the immune system in a way that favors their evasion and spread among which are failure of recognition and/or immune cell suppression. The “immune-oncology” strategic approach is to use one or more antibodies or small molecule inhibitors in the crucial checkpoints of immune cell regulation by cancer cells so that the immune cells recognize and efficiently attack the tumor. The combination new treatment results look promising, especially for lung cancer, but there is still some room for improvement. As seen in previous innovative therapies, for example in Hepatitis C new antivirals, their cost is very high, ranging from $130,000 to $150,000 per patient per year. (The Economist)

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June 5, 2015 at 3:48 pm

Science Policy and U.S. Foreign Policy – Birds of a Feather

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By: Bethanie Morrison

According to the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, “we are experiencing an unparalleled period of advancement and innovation in the life sciences globally that continues to transform our way of life.”1 This advancement in life sciences is driven by developments in international academic institutions, industrial research centers, private laboratories (i.e. Do-it-Yourself Biology) and government research facilities. The evolution of a global research community and the relationships such an entity can foster have major implications for the United States in terms of our foreign policy objectives.  In the pre-9/11 edition of Bruce Jentleson’s American Foreign Policy2, he lists 5 main reasons why U.S. foreign policy is especially important in this post-Cold War era.  The 5 points are summarized here, and you can see how our foreign policy and science policy agendas are inherently linked:

1.  The U.S. still faces significant threats to its national security (biodefense).

2.  The U.S. economy is becoming increasingly internationalized (technology imports and exports).

3.  Areas of policy previously considered “domestic” have been internationalized (STEM education).

4.  The increasing diversity of the U.S. population makes for a larger number of citizens with personal interests in foreign policy (areas of research funding, i.e. Malaria, HIV/AIDS).

5.  The U.S. cannot claim to be true to its most basic values if it ignores its violations internationally (global health system research).

In addition, Jentleson suggests that all foreign policy decisions can be analyzed by a framework of ‘4Ps,’ which stands for Power, Peace, Prosperity and Principles.  While each policy can be analyzed in terms of the 4Ps, it is rare for all four to be simultaneously achievable within each policy decision.  It is interesting to apply this analytical framework to the foreign policy involved in science policy and vice versa.  While this analysis will differ from policy to policy, the significance of each of the 4Ps may differ from political party to political party, making this a dynamic and interesting analytic process.  Below is a sample of how a 4Ps framework may be applied to science policy in terms of foreign policy.

Power:  This is important for self-defense, deterring aggression and exerting influence over other nations.  For example bioterrorism and biodefense strategies, and most DoD-funded research, provides outlets for science policy to influence the US’s position of power internationally. In addition, ensuring continued competitiveness in STEM education and U.S. involvement in “big science” (ie. The Human Genome Project) will require policies that allow us to be the authority on science thereby exerting our influence over other nations.

Peace:  This is important in terms of international management, diplomacy, and shows the importance of international institutions.  With regard to science policy, our relationships and collaborations fostered with other nations that are based on science and technology are critical to maintaining peace.  The globalization of science and international product development partnerships have improved our relationships with many European nations and are now expanding to our relationships with Asia.  Of particular interest is the formation of positive partnerships with major international forces such as Russia and China.  While there remain mistrust issues between the U.S. and China3, working together on a scientific goal may be a form of diplomacy that eases tensions moving forward.

Prosperity:  This relates to trade agreements and international economic policies that improve the U.S. financial system.   The ways in which science translates into finance center around technology development and trade.  This may involve regulatory mechanisms and policies regarding pharmacological agents and technology.

Principles:  These are the values, ideals and beliefs for which the U.S. claims to stand.  Global health initiatives play the largest role in U.S. foreign policy principles aside from our fight against terrorism.  Global health policy encompasses a broad range of research areas including clean water, children and women’s health issues, eradication of diseases and improvement of health care systems world-wide4.

The question is, how would you rank these 4Ps in terms of importance in U.S. foreign policy, and does that ranking system differ when thinking strictly in terms of U.S. science policy and funding?  Why?  Consider writing to your representatives expressing your ideas or concerns in terms of something bigger than your lab.  You never know what could happen!

1.  National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats. National Security Council, November 2009.
2.  Jentleson, Bruce W., American Foreign Policy: the Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century.  W.W. Norton and Company,  July 2013. 
3.  Lieberthal, K., Jisi, W., Addressing US-China Strategic Mistrust.  John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute, March 2012.
4.  Kaiser Family Foundation 2013 Survey of Americans on the U.S. Role in Global Health, November 2013.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 17, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Posted in Essays

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Science Policy Around the Web – November 30, 2012

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photo credit: aloshbennett via photopin cc

By: Jennifer Plank

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

Tobacco Companies Are Told to Correct Lies About Smoking
A recent ruling by Judge Gladys Kessler of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia requires tobacco companies to publish corrective statements admitting that they lied about the dangers of smoking. Each corrective advertisement must include a statement that a federal court has ruled that tobacco companies “deliberately deceived the American public about the health effects of smoking.” The tobacco companies opposed this ruling; however, Judge Kessler maintains that all of the statements are backed by specific findings of the court. (The Associated Press)

A Huge Pay Cut for Doctors is Hiding in the the Fiscal Cliff – On January 1, a 30 percent pay cut for doctors treating Medicare patients is set to take effect. This pay cut has been looming for a decade. Each year, doctors increase the amount they bill for services and procedures. Therefore, in 1997, Congress adapted a solution to this problem to reduce rising costs to Medicare- if doctors’ fees increased too much per patient per year, Medicare would pay a little less for services. For example, in 2002, using the formula developed by Congress, Medicare was to cut 4 percent from the amount paid to doctors. However, that year, doctors complained resulting in complaints to Congress from Medicare patients, and ultimately, Congress passed a bill to ignore the pay cuts. This pattern repeated itself yearly resulting in a cumulative cut of about 30 percent. This reduction in pay for doctors is one component of the fiscal cliff negotiations. (Channa Joffe-Walt)

Smith Wins Chair of U.S. House Science Committee – Leaders in the House of Representatives recommended that Lamar Smith of Texas become the new chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Representative Smith is about to begin serving his 14th term in Congress and has served on the House science committee for 26 years. While Representative Smith maintains some conservative ideals- including being skeptical of government action on climate change, he has also been successful at working in a bipartisan manner. Many lobbyists for universities and science organizations are happy with the selection. (David Malakoff)

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November 30, 2012 at 11:47 am

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 4, 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.

Scientists unsure if humans are to blame for Hurricane SandyFollowing the devastation of Hurricane Sandy last week, one must ask “Did this storm occur as a result of global climate change?” While most climate scientists will not conclusively say that the storm resulted from global climate change, some will offer several pieces of evidence that global warming at least intensified the effects of the storm. (Justin Gillis)

Politics and fetal diagnostics collide – A new diagnostic called non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) will increase the amount of genetic information available early in pregnancy. This test is currently used to determine a fetus’s blood type, gender, father, trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) and trisomy 13. Due to its non-invasive nature and the fact that it can be completed at 10 weeks gestation rather than during the second trimester (when amniocentesis can be performed), NIPT is a valuable tool for diagnosing genetic abnormalities. This new screening method is strongly opposed by pro-life groups and has resulted in the introduction of new legislation to limit abortions following genetic screening. To date, “the FDA has not developed a regulatory scheme for genetic tests”. (Jaime King, subscription required)

Will Elephant Contraception Work in South Africa? – Although the elephant population in much of Africa is endangered due to poaching, the number of elephants in South Africa keeps increasing. Elephants eat approximately 600 pounds of food per day and can be incredibly destructive to their environment. Therefore, wildlife conservationists have encouraged the use of a contraceptive vaccine on female elephants to reduce elephant fertility. However, some experts oppose this new treatment and raise questions about its feasibility. (Martin Plaut)

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November 4, 2012 at 8:38 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 27, 2012

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photo credit: . Shell via photopin cc

By: Jennifer Plank

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

EU acts against harm from biofuel crops – The European Commission has concluded that clearing land in order to plant food for generating biofuels minimizes the environmental benefit of using them. To circumvent this issue, the commission has placed a new cap on the amount food-based biofuel. As an alternative, they recommend using waste, algae, and straw for the production of biofuel.

Viral research faces clampdown – In an attempt to enhance public safety, US health agencies have added two new viruses to the list of select agents – a list of pathogens and toxins that have the “potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety”. However, researchers oppose the restrictions due to the implications posed for conducting research on the select agents. The labs working on these agents will either have to upgrade their biological safety levels, transfer, or destroy their stocks. The two pathogens in question are the SARS Virus and strains of H5N1 influenza that are transmissible to mammals. (Declan Butler)

Life at the Bottleneck – A recent graduate from the University of Vienna’s Department of Social Studies of Science shares the major findings of her research. Ruth Muller studied the current academic landscape and how it influences a postdoc’s career development and working practices. Her findings suggest that the pressure of the postdoctoral position decreases the opportunity to develop skills for future success such as lab management, creative collaboration, and visionary innovation.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

October 27, 2012 at 6:03 pm


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