Science Policy For All

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Science For All – Effective Science Communication and Public Engagement

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By: Agila Somasundaram, PhD

Image: By Scout [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

         In 1859, Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, laying the foundation for the theory of evolution through natural selection. Yet more than 150 years after that discovery and despite a large volume of scientific evidence supporting it, only 33% of the American population believes that humans evolved solely through natural processes. 25% of US adults believe that a supreme being guided evolution, and 34% reject evolution completely, saying that humans and all other forms of life have co-existed forever. Similarly, only 50% of American adults believe that global climate change is mostly due to human activity, with 20% saying that there is no evidence for global warming at all. A significant fraction of the public believes that there is large disagreement among scientists on evolution and climate change (the reality being there is overwhelming scientific evidence and consensus), and questions scientists’ motivations. Public skepticism about scientific evidence and scientists extends to other areas such as vaccination and genetically-modified foods.

Public mistrust in the scientific enterprise has tremendous consequences, not only for federal science funding and the advancement of science, but also for the implementation of effective policies to improve public and global health and combat issues such as global warming. In her keynote address at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, Dr. Jane Lubchenko described the Science-Society ParadoxScientists need society, and society needs science. How then can we build public support for science, and improve public trust in scientists and scientific evidence?

Scientists need to be more actively involved in science outreach and public engagement efforts. Communicating science in its entirety, not just as sensational news, requires public understanding of science, and familiarity with the scientific process – its incremental nature, breakthrough discoveries (that don’t necessarily mean a cure), failures, and limitations alike. Who better to explain that to the public than scientists – skilled professionals who are at the center of the action? In a recent poll, more than 80% of Americans agree that scientists need to interact more with the public and policymakers. But two major hurdles need to be overcome.

Firstly, communicating science to the public is not easy. Current scientific training develops researchers to communicate science in written and oral formats largely to peers. As scientists become more specialized in their fields, technical terms and concepts (jargon) that they use frequently may be incomprehensible to non-experts (even to scientists outside their field). The scientific community would benefit tremendously from formal training in public engagement. Such training should be incorporated into early stages of professional development, including undergraduate and graduate schools. Both students and experienced scientists should be encouraged to make use of workshops and science communication opportunities offered by organizations such as AAAS, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and iBiology, to name a few. Secondly, federal funding agencies and philanthropic organizations should provide resources, and academic institutions should create avenues and incentives, for scientists to engage with the public. Both students and scientists should be allowed time away from their regular responsibilities to participate in public outreach efforts. Instead of penalizing scientists for popularizing science, scientists’ outreach efforts should be taken into consideration during promotion, grants and tenure decisions, and exceptional communicators rewarded. Trained scientist-communicators will be able to work better with their institutions’ public relations staff and science journalists to disseminate their research findings more accurately to a wider audience, and educate the public about the behind-the-scenes world of science that is rarely ever seen outside. Engaging with the public could also benefit researchers directly by increasing their scientific impact, and influence research directions to better impact society.

While increasing science outreach programs and STEM education may seem like obvious solutions, the science of science communication tells us that it is not so simple. The goals of science communication are diverse – they range from generating or sharing scientific excitement, increasing knowledge in a particular topic, understanding public’s concerns, to actually influencing people’s attitudes towards broader science policy issues. Diverse communication goals target a diverse audience, and require an assortment of communicators and communication strategies. Research has shown that simply increasing the public’s scientific knowledge does not help accomplish these various communication goals. This is because people don’t solely rely on scientific information to make decisions; they are influenced by their personal needs, experiences, values, and cultural identity, including their political, ideological or religious affiliations. People also tend to adopt shortcuts when trying to comprehend complex scientific information, and believe more in what aligns with their pre-existing notions or with the beliefs of their social groups, and what they hear repeatedly from influential figures, even if incorrect. Effective science communication requires identifying, understanding and overcoming these and other challenges.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened two meetings of scientists and science communicators, one in 2012 to gauge the state of the art of research on science communication, and another in 2013 to identify gaps in our understanding of science communication. The resulting research agenda outlines important questions requiring further research. For example, what are the best strategies to engage with the public, and how to adapt those methods for multiple groups, without directly challenging their beliefs or values? What are effective ways to communicate science to policymakers? How do we help citizens navigate through misinformation in rapidly changing internet and social media? How to assess the effectiveness of different science communication strategies? And lastly, how do we build the science communication research enterprise? Researchers studying communication in different disciplines, including the social sciences, need to come together and partner with science communicators to translate that research into practice. The third colloquium in this series will be held later this year.

Quoting Dr. Dan Kahan of Yale University, “A central aim of the science of science communication is to protect the value of what is arguably our society’s greatest asset…Modern science.” As evidence-based science communication approaches are being developed further, it is critical that scientists make scientific dialogue a priority, and make use of existing resources to effectively engage with the public – meet people where they are – and bring people a step closer to science – why each person should care – so that ‘post-truth’ doesn’t go from being merely the word of the year to a scary new way of life.

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July 22, 2017 at 11:27 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 28, 2015

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By: Sara Cassidy, M.S., Ph. D.

Legislative policy

House and Senate pass legislation to assist ALS sufferers

Both chambers passed the Steve Gleason Act of 2015 in a verbal vote on July 15th, sending the bill to the President’s desk for signing. The bill modifies Medicare provisions for people with amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS, A.K.A. Lou Gehrig’s Disease) to allow for the purchase of medical equipment that aids in speech generation (speech-generating devices, SGDs). ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that affects motor neurons and sufferers progressively lose the ability to move limbs and facial muscles necessary for speaking. However, cognitive abilities remain intact. SGDs are electronic systems that allow for verbal communication for individuals with severe speech impairments. The famous physicist Steven Hawking relies on an SGD for communication, for example. These devices often use gaze or eye-tracking to relay information to a computer to generate sound or written messages. The bill is named after a former New Orleans Saints football player diagnosed with ALS and was championed by legislators from Louisiana, Sen. David Vitter (R) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R). Steve Gleason played with the Saints for 8 years (from 2000-2008) and famously blocked a punt in 2006 in the first game played in the Superdome after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Gleason wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about the value his SGD gives to the remaining years of his life, and the importance of Medicare coverage of these devices for other ALS sufferers in 2014. (Cristina Marcos, The Hill)

Legislative policy

Congressman Upton urges momentum for medical innovation legislation

Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is asking the Senate to move forward with a bill that they have been crafting in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee that aligns with the recently passed 21st Century Cures Bill in the House. The goal is to potentially combine the bills in conference negotiations so the final product can be enacted by the end of the year. “We all know what happens in presidential years, right? Things really just sort of get gummed up,” Upton explained to an audience at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington, D.C. “We don’t want it to be put into next year.”

The 21st Century Cures Act (H.R. 6), co-authored by Diana DeGette (D-CO), passed the House in a 344-77 vote July 10th. Upton plans to meet the Senate HELP committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking Democrat Patty Murray (D-WA) to explain the House legislation by the end of this week. “We want to just walk them through what we went through so that they don’t feel like we jammed them,” Upton said. “Do interoperability [of electronic medical records], do some FDA reform, do something that’s relevant to what we’ve done and we’ll go to conference and we’ll accept it,” he said.

The HELP committee is expected to have a medical innovations bill in September, but recent efforts have been focused on education. On July 16th, Alexander and Murray advanced their committee’s bipartisan elementary and secondary education bill (S. 1177) through the Senate by an 81-17 vote.

Upton said the goal of the Cures Bill was to get more than 300 votes on the House floor to get the attention of the Senate and prod the chamber to act. “Our goal was always 300 votes,” he mentioned in a previous interview, “344 was icing on the cake. We’ll continue to work with all of our colleagues.” However, while the bill did garner bipartisan support, 70 of the 77 unsupportive votes came from Upton’s own party. One of the dissenters, Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) took issue with the $8.75 billion slated for the NIH, because it is categorized as mandatory funding and therefore not subject to budget caps. Price believes this issue could hold up the Senate’s acceptance of the bill. Notably, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who authored a white paper on medical innovation with Sen. Alexander, said he supports keeping the NIH budget discretionary. “This is a discretionary program today; it should stay there,” he noted. And importantly, an amendment to the 21st Century Cures Bill, presented to the House by Dave Brat (R-VA), that would have made the NIH funds discretionary, failed in a 281-141 vote.

Funding authorized by the bill could begin as early as Oct 1st, Upton noted, if the Senate can enact legislation by then.

(Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call; Caitlin Owens, The National Journal)

Publishing policy

Scientists fed up with sexist overtones at Science Magazine

Science is one of the oldest and most prestigious journals in the academy. In recent years, it has branched out beyond primary scientific research to cover topics like science policy (Science Insider) and career advice for scientists (Science Careers), among others. However, some recent Science publications have proponents of diversity up in arms; so much so that Aradhna Tripati, Jennifer Glass, and Lenny Teytelman authored an open letter to Science (signed by more than 300 scientists) urging its editors to use their influence in the scientific community for the promotion of diversity in science, instead of elevating outdated gender stereotypes typified by the offending posts.

The first offense listed by the letter’s authors was in June 2014. That month, one cover of the weekly Science Magazine was a photo of transgender sex workers in Jakarta whose heads were cropped out of the image. According to Retraction Watch, which was given permission to publish excerpts of the letter, “The cover photo of headless transgender sex workers of color with the caption ‘Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS’ fed into stereotypes associating prostitution and HIV/AIDS with three underrepresented communities – women, people of color and the transgender community – along with its general harmful representation of disembodied female bodies”, the authors note. In July of that month Science editor Marcia McNutt did add an addendum to the webpage displaying that cover apologizing for the offense. Congresswomen Jackie Speier (D-CA) also weighed in on the photo, “The use of headless, sexualized women of color on the cover of the most prestigious science publication in the United States sends the message that women and minorities still do not fully belong in the ‘boy’s club’ of science.”

On June 1st, 2015, a post-doc wrote to a Science Careers advice column penned by virologist Alice Huang (Senior Faculty Associate, CalTech) complaining that her new male advisor constantly stares down her blouse. Dr. Huang effectively told her to grin and bear it. To their credit, Science Careers retracted the article within hours, however her advice drew immediate attention from the Internet and was cited by the Washington Post, among others.

The final straw came earlier this month, when Science Careers published an article by Dr. Eleftherios Diamandis, wherein his advice on how to “make it” in academic science involved passing off all domestic responsibilities to your wife in favor of working excessively long hours. “I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave,” he wrote. And while some commenters at Inside Higher Ed were unfazed by this advice, others are fed up. Janet Stemwedel (associate professor at San Jose State University) told Retraction Watch, “My big issue with the Science Careers career advice/exemplars of people succeeding that are clearly meant to convey something advice-like is how mired they are in a status quo that many of us have been trying to dismantle for (what feels like) forever. Advisor who views you as a pair of boobs rather than a fully human future colleague? Grin and bear it! Need to make an impression to get noticed in your field? Work an unhealthy number of hours and foist the (unpaid/undervalued) domestic and emotional work on your wife! Tips on how to make it assume that nothing’s going to get better — and indeed, they give people following them no reason to work to change the system to make it any better.”

Science Careers published an apology penned by Marcia McNutt, July 16th, acknowledging some mistakes but also asserting their commitment to promoting diversity in science. (Retraction Watch, Rachel Feltmen, Washington Post)

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July 28, 2015 at 11:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 30, 2015

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By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.

photo credit: Matti Mattila via photopin cc

Federal Budget – Science Funding

Next week, the annual hemming and hawing over the allocation of the precious federal dollars begins with the Obama administration sending its 2016 budget requests to Congress. Researchers are eager to see how this year’s fiscal drama unfolds, particularly with both houses being controlled by a Republican majority for the first time since President Obama was elected in 2008. In anticipation of these events, Jeffrey Mervis of ScienceInsider is writing a series of articles to offer some perspective on how this process works. In the three part series, Mr. Mervis talks with Representative John Culberson (R—TX), the new chair of the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS), and Related Agencies spending panel for the House of Representatives; Tom Cole (R—OK), a Ph.D. historian who now oversees the budget of the NIH; and the final essay will actually track the money (not available as of this writing).

A lawyer and a science enthusiast, Culberson was elected to Congress from a conservative district of Houston in 2000. Culberson comes from a family that was “fiscally conservative, devoted to the Constitution, and believed the American republic is a special inheritance.” With Thomas Jefferson as his role model, Culberson believes in a small federal government. However, because the Constitution states that “promoting the progress of science” is in the pervue of the federal government, he is comfortable supporting multibillion-dollar science investments in NASA’s space exploration efforts and the NSF’s efforts to improve science and math education. Culberson does follow the party line, though, in that the behavioral and social sciences and climate change funding are not priorities for the federal budget. (Mervis – ScienceInsider)

Since joining the House in 2003, Representative Tom Cole has served on both the Appropriations and Budget committees and sits on the rules committee and is a deputy whip for the Republican Steering Committee. Now, Dr. Cole is set take control of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-H) subcommittee appropriations panel, which includes funding the NIH. While growing up, Dr. Cole’s mother impressed on him that everywhere she lived that had a competitive two-party system was governed better than locations where power was concentrated in one party. Thus, he became a Republican largely because Oklahoma was a Democratic haven when he entered politics. Thus, despite his conservative credentials, Dr. Cole has a reputation for listening to all sides of an argument and working cooperatively with both sides of the aisle to achieve goals. “Legislators are students too,” says Cole, and thus he endeavors to learn more about the NIH and how it functions before making any bold declarations. Yet, he does state that some of his priorities include maintaining a strong military, protecting the weather forecast office in Norman, OK, and advocating for the Indian Health Service. (Mervis – ScienceInsider)

There are always seem to be plenty of sensationalist headlines to go around about the “anti-science Republicans.” However, there are certainly high-ranking Republicans who are staunch advocates for funding different branches of science. The biggest hurdle in the months of arguing to come is that the federal budget, in general, remains tight. Thus, it is likely that even with the best discussions and compromises, there will still be plenty of disappointments once the final 2016 budget is passed.


Science Communication – Scientists vs the General Public

The results of a new poll administered by the Pew Research Center are in, and they confirm there is a large gap in opinions between the general public and scientists on many popular topics. The poll, conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), asked 2,002 US adults and 3,748 AAAS members the same set of questions about scientific achievements, education, and controversial issues. Some of the few things that the two groups agree on are that the International Space Station has been a good investment for the US and that we should not increase the use of fracking. Yet, as many people are aware, there are large differences in opinion on whether is it safe to eat genetically modified foods (51% gap in opinion), the extent that climate change is mostly due to human activity (37% gap), or whether humans have evolved over time (33% gap). Although scientists tend to point to their own poor track record of interacting with the general public and deficits in scientific education, this is likely an over-simplification of a complex issue. In many cases, the people being polled are educated, scientifically literate individuals. Yet, according to one study published in American Sociological Review, one in five US adults are deeply religious, and those individuals often disregard scientific findings that clash with their beliefs. Alan Leshner, the leader of AAAS, believes that scientists need to make a greater effort in engaging small, grass roots, type of venues like retirement communities or library groups to help the general public understand that “scientists are people too.” (Graham – BioMed Central, Funk and Raine – Pew Research Center)


Environmental Policy – Offshore Drilling

Perhaps receiving less attention than the more widely touted Precision Medicine Initiative, on Tuesday the Obama Administration announced a proposal to open the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling. The administration seems to be offering this proposal as a compromise for limiting drilling efforts in the Arctic, where President Obama called for wilderness protection of 12.4 million acres of oil-rich lands in Alaska. Environmentalists are concerned about the potential of oil spills and other environmental disasters, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico. And even the fossil fuel industry has complaints about the proposal. It is unclear how much oil and gas are even accessible off of the Atlantic coast. Based off of the most recent surveys, which are 30 years old, the Atlantic holds only a fraction of the reserves available off of Alaska. Adding further to the fossil fuel industry’s displeasure is the fact that the proposal does not call for drilling in the Arctic until 2017 at the earliest. The Arctic is an area becoming quite popular in the international community due to the melting of the polar ice caps making the region more accessible and increasing available shipping lanes. Industry advocates say the delay jeopardizes the US’s energy security, since countries like Russia and Denmark are already aggressively exploring the region. (Koch – National Geographic)



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January 30, 2015 at 11:54 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 9, 2015

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By: Elisavet Serti, PhD

photo credit: sjrankin via photopin cc

Scientific Breakthroughs

Science journal publishes Top 10 Scientific Breakthroughs of 2014

On the 19th of December issue of Science, the editors listed the Rosetta spacecraft and its preliminary results as the most important scientific breakthrough of 2014. This spacecraft became known for catching up with the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko beyond Mars last August. Rosetta’s short-lived lander, known as Philae, managed to touch down on the side of the comet next to a cliff, far from the initial targeted spot. The absence of adequate sunlight that would recharge its batteries gave Philae only 57 hours to collect data before its expiration. The importance of this first-ever soft landing of a spacecraft on a comet was emotional and largely symbolic since 80% of the scientific data of this mission will be generated from Philae’s mother ship, Rosetta, that will orbit around the comet throughout 2015. With this mission, scientists want to understand how comets are altered while approaching the sun and also how comets formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago.

This annual list of groundbreaking scientific achievements includes advances in medicine, robotics, synthetic biology and paleontology. Interestingly, the visitors to Science’s website picked the impressive genetic achievement of incorporating two additional letters into E.coli ’s genetic code, as the top scientific breakthrough for 2014. Two researchers managed to engineer the bacterial DNA in a novel way, which includes a pair of lab-synthesized nucleotides: X and Y. These two nucleotides don’t code for anything and because they do not exist in nature, the engineered bacteria would not be able to replicate and pass on their genetic material to any offspring. The two researchers aim to use X and Y for the encoding of artificial amino acids, beyond the 20 natural ones that are encoded by the nucleotides of the “normal” DNA, that would lead to artificial protein products.   (Eric Hand and Robert F. Service, Science).


Federal Research Programs

National Children’s Study program is cancelled after 14 years

The National Children’s Study (NCS) was initiated in the late 1990’s by US pediatricians and other scientists that initiated a plan to follow a cohort of 100,000 children from birth to age 21, generating an unprecedented amount of biological specimens and clinical data of invaluable scientific potential. The main aim of this study was to identify the factors that shape child development and to understand how these factors lead to disease phenotypes. The Congress approved the project’s budget in 2000 and the NCS Program Office was established at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2003 aiming to recruit a representative sample of 100,000 pregnant women from 100 states in the largest longitudinal study of its kind in the United States.

In 2007, the initial funding of $70 million launched the first NCS centers that managed to enroll 5700 children. The recruitment plan proved to be inadequate. When the costs rose to $6.9 billion, the NCS program officers decided to close the NCS centers and rely on large contractors to run the projects. These changes were criticized by a large number of researchers, and the consequent review that was ruled by the Congress concluded that although the NCS had great potential, there were problems with its design and its management. In addition, there was no specific protocol for the study and the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director agreed with this review stating that the NCS “as currently outlined, is not feasible.” After these findings, Dr Francis Collins, the NIH director, decided to cancel the study and to close the NCS program office on December 2014. However, all existing data and biospecimens will be made available to outside researchers and the NCS funds will be redistributed to NIH institutes for related activities so that there is still potential for a positive outcome from this otherwise brilliant initiative.   (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)


Research Interpretation

Should cancer patients blame their bad luck?

Despite the large emphasis placed on gene heredity or risky habits like smoking on cancer risks, random mutations that occur during ordinary cell division are responsible for the two-thirds of cancer incidence of various types (22 out of 31 cancer types). These random mutations prove to be harmful if they affect the expression of cancer-related genes, known as oncogenes or tumor-suppressor genes, leading to tumor formation. As expected, it was observed that tissues that undergo a greater number of divisions were more prone to tumors since the probability of mutations is elevated. This means that most cancer patients could simply blame their biological bad luck and not their lifestyle or their genetic background. However, there are 9 cancer types, including colorectal, skin and lung cancer, which are heavily influenced by heredity and environmental factors like smoking, prolonged sun exposure or exposure to carcinogens, thus verifying the importance of these factors in carcinogenesis.   (Will Dunham, Reuters)



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Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 9, 2015 at 1:36 pm