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Science Policy Around the Web – July 7, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Autism

Is There Such a Thing as an Autism Gene?

Autism has become a global burden of disease. In 2015, it was estimated to affect 24.8 million people globally. Significant research efforts are underway to investigate the causes of autism. Autism is highly heritable – there is an 80 percent chance that a child would be autistic if an identical twin has autism. The corresponding rate is about 40 percent for fraternal twins.

However, is there such a thing as a single autism gene? Researchers haven’t found one specific gene that is consistently mutated in every person with autism. Conversely, 65 genes are strongly linked to autism and more than 200 others have weaker ties, many of which are related to important neuronal functions. Mutations in a variety of these genes can collectively lead to autism. The mutations could be from single DNA base pair, or copy number variations, which are deletions or duplications of long stretches of DNA that may involve many genes. Most mutations are inherited, but some mutations could also happen in an egg or sperm, or even after conception.

Besides genetic factors, maternal lifestyle and environmental factors can also contribute to autism. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy or a maternal immune response in the womb may increase the risk of autism. While there is speculation on the link between vaccines and autism, it is not backed by scientific evidence.

Since both genetic and non-genetic factors play a role in the development of autism, establishing the underlying mechanism is complicated. There is no single specific test that can be used for screening autism. However, some tests are available to detect large chromosomal abnormalities or fragile X syndrome, which is associated with autism. (Nicholette Zeliadt, Washington Post)

STEM Education

New Florida Law Lets any Resident Challenge What’s Taught in Science Classes

A new law was signed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) last week, and has taken effect starting July 1. The law requires school boards to hire an “unbiased hearing officer” to handle complaints about teaching materials that are used in local schools. Any county resident can file a complaint, and the material in question will be removed from the curriculum if the hearing officer thinks that the material is “pornographic,” or “is not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group.”

There are different voices in the new legislation, which affects 2.7 million public school students in Florida. Proponents argue that it gives residents more right in participating in their children’s education. A sponsor, state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples), said that his intent wasn’t to target any particular subject. However, Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Council for Science Education, is worried that science instruction will be challenged since evolution and climate change have been disputed subjects. A group called Florida Citizens for Science asked people to pay close attention to classroom materials and “be willing to stand up for sound science education.”

Like the new law in Florida, the legislature in Idaho rejected several sections of the state’s new public school science standards related to climate change and requested a resubmission for approval this fall. Since the Trump administration began, there has been “a new wave of bills” targeting science in the classroom. To protect teacher’s “academic freedom,” Alabama and Indiana adopted non-binding resolutions that encourage teachers to discuss the controversy around subjects such as climate change. A supporter of the resolution, state Sen. Jeff Raatz (R-Centerville), told Frontline, “Whether it be evolution or the argument about global warming, we don’t want teachers to be afraid to converse about such things”. (Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post)

 

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July 7, 2017 at 1:32 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 4, 2016

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By: Courtney Kurtyka, PhD

Source: Flickr, by Wellington College, under Creative Commons

Science Education

Unexpected results regarding U.S. students’ science education released

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a nation-wide exam and survey used in the United States to ascertain student knowledge and education in key areas. Recently, the 2015 science education results from fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders in the United States were released, and showed some surprising outcomes. Out of seven different hands-on activities that students were asked if they completed as part of their curriculum, only one (simple machines) showed a positive correlation between activity participation and scores on the exam. Some activities (such as using a microscope or working with chemicals) showed no correlation with scores on the exam, while students who engaged in activities such as handling rocks and minerals actually performed worse than students who did not. Furthermore, not as many students engage in scientific activities as part of their curriculum as one might expect. For example, 58% said that they never used simple machines in class, while 62% say they never or rarely work with “living things”.

An anonymous expert on the assessment suggested that one potential explanation for these unexpected results is that the assessment asks whether students completed any of these activities “this year”. Therefore, for the results from twelfth graders, students who use rocks and minerals in class tend to be in lower-level science courses, and are more likely to not perform as well on the exam as students in higher-level courses that would not include that activity. However, this does not account for the low level of reporting of scientific activities overall.

Another concerning aspect of the exam is related to the reporting of the results. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which manages the NAEP, operates a website that is both difficult to use and incomplete. In fact, when using the drop-down menu of results from the survey, only the results of activities that have positive correlations with test scores are listed. NCES has said that they show results based on what they think are of greatest interest to the public.

While some cite the positive results as a reflection of the success of active learning techniques, others note that 40% of twelfth graders who took the NAEP did not have a “basic” knowledge of science. Additionally, these results are interesting for many because the twelfth graders reflect the first students to have spent their entire education under No Child Left Behind, which mandated annual assessment of reading and math for third through eighth graders. Since many have argued that this law leaves less room for teaching topics that are not tested (such as science), examining students’ scientific performance under these guidelines is important. (Jeffrey Mervis, Science Magazine)

Health Disparities

Sexual and gender minorities are officially recognized as a minority health population

The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), one of the institutes and centers within the National Institutes of Health, recently officially recognized sexual and gender minorities (SGM) as a distinct minority health population. The SGM population is very diverse, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities, as well as those from additional sexual and gender classifications that differ from various norms (such as traditional, cultural, etc.).

Multiple health disparities (meaning that the likelihood of disease and death from particular diseases and disorders in that group differ from the average population) have been identified in the SGM population. Some of these issues include a lower likelihood of women who have sex with women getting Pap smears and mammograms, and higher rates of depression, panic attacks, and psychological distress in gay and bisexual men.

Previously, the NIH requested a report on SGM health that was published in 2011, and later created the Sexual and Gender Minority Research Office (SGMRO) following the results of the report. Now, this official designation will allow researchers focused on SGM health to be able to apply for health disparity funding from the NIH, and Karen Parker (the director of the SGMRO at the NIH) said that she hopes that it will lead to increased interest in applications to support health research related to this population. (Nicole Wetsman, STAT)

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November 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 12, 2016

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Health Policy

20 Years after Dolly the Sheep Led the Way—Where Is Cloning Now?

Scientist Dr. Ian Wilmut cloned a mammal, Dolly the Sheep, from an adult sheep’s mammary gland. Born on July 5, 1996, Dolly has “[…] changed everything,” says Dr. Alan Trounson, Dr. Wilmut’s colleague. Cloning a mammal changed the scientific dogma of its time and opened up a Pandora’s box of possibilities with significant consequences.

The impact of cloning on basic science has surpassed expectations. Cloning’s biggest impact has been in the advancement of stem cell and developmental biology. Stem cell biologist, Shinya Yamanaka, said via email, “Dolly the Sheep told me that nuclear reprogramming is possible even in mammalian cells and encouraged me to start my own project.” Dr. Yamanaka uses adult cells to make stem cells that can form a wide range of other cells – in a way, reversing their biological clock back to infancy so the cells are “young again” and capable of forming a wide range of other cells. Because they are artificially created and have a variety of features, they are call induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The rise of these iPS cells has reduced the need for embryonic stem cells, an acrimonious ethical dilemma tightly bound with stem cell research.

“Dolly’s birth was transformative because it proved that the nucleus of the adult cell had all the DNA necessary to give rise to another animal,” says stem cell biologist Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Despite the successes achieved with cloning Dolly the Sheep, we likely will not see a cloned human any time soon. The technique used to clone Dolly the Sheep has been unsuccessful in the species closest to humans, primates. Additionally, Dr. Wilmut says, “Just because it may work in the sense of producing offspring doesn’t meant to say we should do it. The likelihood is that you would get pregnancy losses, abnormal births. I wouldn’t want to be the person who looked a cloned child in the face and said ‘very sorry.’” Others think that the recent advances in gene-editing technology (such as CRISPR), to correct genetic errors, will diminish the need to clone. Additionally, the thought of cloning a deceased loved one or beloved pet has reduced in popularity because of the recognition that the environment affects behavior along with genetics. It is unlikely the cloned subject would be a “true” clone when it comes to personality traits that helped create the initial bond.

Sadly, Dolly died on February 14, 2003, at the age of six due to a lung infection common among animals who are not given access to the outdoors. What started out as an unexpected discovery (Dr. Wilmut and his colleagues admit Dolly’s birth was a lucky accident) has paved the way for significant discoveries in stem cell biology and in how we view one another as people. 20 years after Dolly the Sheep scientists, ethicists, and society are still putting all the pieces together to figure out the mysteries of life and who should hold the key of creation. (Karen Weintraub, Scientific American)

Breast Cancer Research

NIH launches largest-ever study of breast cancer genetics in black women

A $12 million collaborative research grant awarded to Dr. Wei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University, Christopher Haiman, Sc.D., of the University of Southern California, and Julie Palmer, Sc.D., of Boston University will support the largest-ever study of breast cancer genetics in black women. The collaborative research project, funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will build on years of research cooperation among investigators who are part of the African-American Breast Cancer Consortium, the African-American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk (AMBER) Consortium, and the NCI Cohort Consortium. These investigators are from various institutions and will share biospecimens (such as patient blood, urine, etc.), clinical characteristics, and resources from 18 previous studies, resulting in a study population of 20,000 black women with breast cancer.

Acting Director of the NCI, Douglas R. Lowy, M.D. says, “This effort is about making sure that all Americans – no matter their background – reap the same benefits from the promising advances of precision medicine. Survival rates for women with breast cancer have been steadily improving over the past several decades. However, these improvements have not been shared equally across the board – black women are more likely to die of their disease and have a more aggressive breast cancer subtype that is more difficult to treat. The exact reasons for these disparities are unclear, although previous studies suggest that the underlying causes are multifactorial with a complex interplay between genetic, environmental, and societal factors.”

“This $12 million grant — in combination with previous investments — should help advance our understanding of the social and biological causes that lead to disparities in cancer among underserved populations,” said Robert Croyle, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS), which is administering the grant. “A better understanding of the genetic contributions to differences in breast cancer diagnoses and outcomes among African-Americans may lead to better treatments and better approaches to cancer prevention.” (NCI Press Officers, NIH)

Science Education

Schools Look to Legos to Build Science Interest

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the Duval, Florida school district has proposed spending $187,700 to set up Lego robotics teams in 50 schools, an increase from the 36 schools currently operating such clubs. The long-term vision is to have robotics teams in all 161 Duval public schools. The hope is that this extracurricular activity will spark students’ engagement in technology fields and hopefully get them more involved in math, science and computers in class.

Mr. Vitti wants the school district to work with Renaissance Jax, a nonprofit Lego League and affiliate partner for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” (FIRST). FIRST organizes thousands of robotics and technology competitions around the country from kindergarten through 12th grade. The contract would involve training teachers and volunteers to run the teams and to coordinate practices and competitions.

FIRST team surveys show that 86 percent of participants say they are more interested in doing well at school, 84 percent are motivated to take challenging math and science courses, and 80 percent are more interested in Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM)-related jobs. What’s more, the gender gap in science and technology is not apparent at the tournaments. Mechanisms such as these introduced early on and throughout children’s education may help to increase student’s desire for a STEM education and decrease STEM bias among men and women. (Associated Press, U.S.News)

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July 12, 2016 at 10:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 4, 2016

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Science Education Policy

Are Science Lecture Classes Sexist?

Students of both sexes complain it is increasingly more difficult to get A’s in college science and math classes then in other non-science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) classes. However, women are suffering disproportionately to a “grade penalty” in sciences versus male college students.

A study from the University of Michigan, that has been submitted to the open access journal, PLoS One, observed that female college student typically earn half a letter grade lower in large, introductory math or science courses than in other classes at the university. In contrast, male college students only received a grade that was a third of a letter grade lower. Both sexes do worse in the introductory chemistry course, however, female college students experience a “grade penalty” more often than male college students.

What is interesting is that the reverse is true when looking at STEM laboratory grades and breaking it down by gender. Female college students do better overall in laboratory classes compared to lecture and even outscore their male counterparts. The author of the study, Dr. Timothy McKay, a Michigan professor of physics, contributes this difference the the fact that labs allow time for students to go at their own pace and polish up their reports without a ticking time clock — such as you have with in-class timed examinations. Why would women do worse on objective, timed tests? McKay speculates that something called “stereotype threat” is at play, whereby women may not perform at their best when they feel that they are in an environment where women don’t succeed. Timed tests add an element of stress, which can trigger this sort of self-doubting, counterproductive anxiety.

McKay is now conducting experiments to see if he can level the playing field. In some lecture classes, he is replacing a few high-stakes exams with biweekly in-class quizzes. The hope is that more frequent evaluation will lower stress levels and diminish self-doubt. He is also working with psychologists to program an online coaching system to send reassuring messages to female students, designed to reduce anxiety. (Jill Barshay, U.S. News).

STEM Education

Top business leaders, 27 governors, urge Congress to boost computer science education

Top businesses in the United States — Apple, Facebook, Target, Walmart, and AT&T—are calling on Congress to improve computer science education in all K-12 schools. The companies worry that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in science among the nation’s youth in technological fields. A bipartisan coalition of 27 governors has joined the effort. They hope by supporting the teaching of coding and programming that this will draw in middle-class jobs to their states. Moreover, with children who are trained in computer science and math, they will be giving them the skills they need to be successful in a modern economy. “Our schools should give all students the opportunity to understand how this technology works, to learn how to be creators, coders, and makers — not just consumers,” they wrote Tuesday in an open letter to lawmakers. “Instead, what is increasingly a basic skill is only available to the lucky few, leaving most students behind, particularly students of color and girls.”

It is estimated that nearly 500,000 U.S. jobs require some level of computer-science understanding, yet three-quarters of the nation’s public schools do not offer any computer science courses, often forcing companies to turn to foreign workers for specialized skills. To make matters worse, the federal government has virtually no federal funding dedicated to enhancing computer science offerings in K-12 schools. For many schools, computer science education is treated as an elective: a nice-to-have option for the few students who are naturally inclined to seek it out. However, there is a push to treat computer science as a core subject instead, such as algebra or biology, to which every student is exposed. “It just seems so ridiculously obvious that our education policy has to include computer science as a basic. The fact that you’d even discuss it seems absurd,” said Barry Diller, chairman of the online travel company Expedia and of IAC, which owns websites including the Daily Beast, Dictionary.com and the dating site Match.com.

Business leaders say democratizing access to computer science will give students a leg up in the burgeoning tech fields but also in almost any job. “Computer science is not just about becoming an engineer, but teaching people how to think in a different way, in a critical way,” said Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive of Twitter. “That can be helpful in any field.” (Emma Brown, Washington Post).

Science in Health

After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight

“The Biggest Loser” is a reality TV show where contestants who are extremely overweight compete in their weight loss efforts and whoever is ‘the biggest loser’ wins. Danny Cahill, winning contestant from Season 8 of NBC’s television show said, “I’ve got my life back. I mean, I feel like a million bucks” upon winning. However, in the 5 years since the show’s end, he has gained more than 100 pounds back despite his best efforts. In fact, most of the season’s contestants have regained most if not all the weight they lost. Surprisingly, some are even heavier now.

Kevin Hall, a scientist at a federal research center, had the idea to follow contestants from “The Biggest Loser” for six years. The project was first to measure what happened to people over that time period. Their stunning results showed the body’s resistance to weight loss. “It is frightening and amazing,” said Dr. Hall, an expert on metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “I am just blown away.”

A person’s resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns at rest, is set to the individual’s body weight set-point. Therefore, when a person deliberately loses weight, regardless of if they are a normal weight or not, the body will slow its metabolism to thwart their best efforts.

It was already known that those who deliberately lose weight will have a slower metabolism when the diet ends. So the researchers were not surprised to see that “The Biggest Loser” contestants had slower metabolisms when the show ended. What shocked the researchers was as the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight. These research findings give insight into the nation’s obesity problem and the struggles individuals go through to keep the weight off. (Tracey Yukich, The New York Times).

 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 4, 2016 at 9:00 am