Here’s how to convince people climate change is now


The National Climate Assessment

You probably know that the White House issued the massive National Climate Assessment early this week. I’ll get to details and more links to comments in a moment, but if you need a quick overview, let John Timmer be your guide at Ars Technica. The report not only describes what’s going on with climate change right now, he says, but also deals with some of the arguments made by skeptics. What’s particularly useful is its regional approach, making clear how vastly different, for example, changes in precipitation have been in various parts of the country.


How to change American attitudes?

“What will it take to get the American people to understand the dangers of climate change?” Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn wants to know. “Is there anything that can awaken them?”

I have a modest proposal to encourage the Awakening. I learned at my adman father’s knee that the key to persuasion is simple and easy: Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

Credit: National Climate Assessment

Credit: National Climate Assessment

So here’s my plan: Learn from the Koch brothers. Learn from the Supreme Court rulings on unlimited and anonymous political funding. And then take action. Get rich guys to bankroll a foundation that will underwrite torrential ad campaigns in places where electing candidates committed to new climate-change policies can make a difference.

Bill and Melinda Gates surely understand that warming is going to make their admirable attempts to eliminate endemic diseases in the developing world much harder. Hell, maybe even casino mogul Sheldon Adelson can grasp that the coming water shortages will be bad for his Las Vegas enterprises–not to mention his beloved Israel.

The Gates-Adelson Foundation should target in particular elections for the US House of Representatives, because until we get a very different kind of Congress there will be little progress on dealing with climate change or any other pressing policy matters–despite the President’s vow to do what he can with executive orders.

Local races are probably even more important. Unless state legislatures change dramatically before the next census in 2020, there is no hope of ungerrymandering all those congressional districts that the politically savvy made safe for the servants of fossil fuels and other antediluvian interests after the 2010 census.


Antediluvian attitudes

Speaking of floods, perhaps there is hope for scientists being able to link at least some extreme weather events to warming. The new report argues that drought will continue in the Southwest and rain will increase in the Midwest and, especially, the Northeast. The report also forecasts more violent storms.  It will be easier to make an impact on American climate consciousness if people see the evidence outside their kitchen windows.

Heavy precipitation events are increasing, but not everywhere. Via Ars Technica.

Heavy precipitation events are increasing, but not everywhere. Via Ars Technica.

At Swampland, Michael Grunwald is gloomy about getting attitudes to change, despite unusual warming-related events. “It’s annoying that Biscayne Bay now floods the Whole Foods parking lot near my house once a month, but it’s not the end of the world,” he says. True, especially if there’s a Trader Joe’s with drier parking not far away. Cheaper, too.

Still, it’s hard to believe that Miamians aren’t worried, at least in their secret hearts. They have heard more than once that their major American city is destined to be swept away. Maybe continued and frequent repetition will do the trick. One episode of hand-wringing at Whole Foods might not have much impact, but what if it was repeated regularly during this monthly flooding?

The Gates-Adelson Foundation could give grants for regular coverage of the Whole Foods parking lot, perhaps featuring monthly measurements of how much higher the flooding gets each time. How long would complacency persist if local media kept harping on local flooding? If TV commercials kept making the point?

I suppose social scientists might argue that people would adapt and grow deaf and blind to this repetition. But the ad industry and its clients have made zillions by begging to differ. Attitudes might not change fast, but I bet they would change.


Employing employment

And what about job possibilities as a tool for persuasion? Some Republicans have decried the White House report as a distraction from attempts to increase jobs, neglecting to note that dealing with warming would be that thing they say they value above all: a job creator. Grunwald says the wind and solar industries now employ more Americans than the coal industry. I can hardly believe something so wonderful is true, but even if it is, there’s nothing wrong with growing even more renewables.

Even the appalling delay in instituting policies for dealing with climate change has a bright side for boosting employment: the many job possibilities in what will soon, inevitably, be an adaptation/preparation/mitigation industry. I hear that my native Chicago is dealing with the increase in Midwestern heat and snow and rain by resurfacing its alleys with light-colored permeable material. Lots of work there; Chicago has thousands of alleys. In Miami and Charleston and Norfolk and other imperiled coastal enclaves, filling sandbags is work nearly anybody can do.

I’m not being entirely facetious here.


National Climate Assessment bloggery

No way can I cover the extensive comment on the National Climate Assessment report adequately. Here are a few links to get you started.

At Wonkblog, Puneet Kollipara summarizes and links to several analyses and commentaries on the report. Kollipara points out that this is only the most recent of a series of pessimistic reports on climate change, but none has made much of a difference in public attitudes. Polls show that a majority of Americans accept that climate is changing, but dealing with it is a low priority for most.

Charlie Petit summarizes the report briefly and analyzes lots of media coverage at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. The Carbon Brief has done a number of posts on the report, of course. This one, by Roz Pidcock, is about local approaches to adapting.


From the explainer sites: not much

Maybe the sparse attention the new explainer sites bestowed on the report makes sense, given the flood from other sources. Still, my idea of the explainer sites is that their function is, well, to explain. I was hoping for more. They’re all newborns, so I suppose we should cut them some slack.

At the new explainer site Vox, Brad Plumer did the most. But it was a kind of making-do, with nine maps taken from the report that show how climate change is already affecting the US.

At the even newer explainer site TheUpshot, from the New York Times, David Leonhardt didn’t deal directly with the report at all. He divided attitudes toward climate change by political party and showed that the views of Democrats and Independents are similar to those in several other countries: Chile, Spain, Italy, Japan. The outliers are Republicans. But you knew that.

At 538, Nate Silver’s new enterprise, silence. Nothing at all on the report. Having gotten so much flack from the site’s first foray into climate change commentary, maybe Silver is keeping his head down.


Deniers and skeptics

Judith Curry’s analysis is (predictably) mostly negative, although there are some things about the report she liked. She is also concerned that the emphasis on weather events due to CO2 will mean unpleasant surprises ahead when we are blindsided by extreme events from other causes.

Credit: National Climate Assessment

Credit: National Climate Assessment

Watts Up With That features its traditional all-denial posts, like this one under the hed “Alarmists offer untrue, unrelenting gloom and doom.” It’s a reprint of the Marlo Lewis piece from Fox News.


The National Climate Assessment as a science communication tool

Whatever your opinion of its content, the National Climate Assessment report is a remarkable document. Huge, yes. 800-plus pages. But also a magnificent, and magnificently accessible, Web site.

David Ropeik describes it all in a guest blog post at Scientific American, explaining how and why the report is a model of scientific communication. For one thing, the emphasis is on climate change as a current threat, not a distant future one, an attempt to bring the need for present action home to readers. The report’s language is clear, and there are lots of simple graphics that keep this immense document from being completely technically intimidating.

The amount of work involved in putting this thing together is staggering. All hail the senior writer, Susan Joy Hassol. I’m guessing she had helpers, and all hail to them, too.

Ropeik is not hopeful that the report will have an immediate impact, but he seems to think it will affect policy eventually. He notes also that it does lay the groundwork for executive actions that President Obama is believed to be about to announce.

climate stay tuned

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Sexing research, Stem cells for the heart, Climate change on Fox News

Of Mice and Men

The paper showing that the presence of male but not female researchers increases the stress level of lab rodents and thereby alters experimental results set off an assortment of responses in me.

1. Jokey. For example, the observation that male researchers scare the crap out of mice is literally true and therefore irresistible. This because mice deposit more fecal boli when stressed than when not, a behavior that can be triggered by even so innocuous a stimulus as a t-shirt previously worn by a man. The evidence is a graph in the paywalled paper or the open-access replication at Vox in Susannah Locke’s post. (The just-right Mickey Mouse pic is from there, too.)

2. Feminist. My first thought being optimistic, based on hope: Cool, a fabulous economic justification for opening research to more women scientists because they won’t screw up the experiments like men do. And my second being empirical, based on historical experience: Oh no, they’ll turn women scientists into lab technicians and make them care for the animals.

Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

3. Alarmed. Good grief, does this mean writing off decades worth of animal experiments? Senior author Jeffrey Mogil said he did the sex-effect research partly because such an effect had been long rumored, and while it’s a confounding effect, it’s not a fatal one. It should, though, mean changes in research practices, and the sex of the researchers should be noted in the Methods section of papers, he told David Grimm at ScienceNow.

But Grimm also quotes other scientists who wonder if these sex differences in personnel could be a reason labs often have difficulty replicating the work of others. Or whether they could affect clinical trials. Says one, “This could have an impact on just about everything.”

Mogil has speculated that the reason for this effect is evolutionary and probably triggered by pheromones detectable by other mammals of many species. A solitary male is likely to be on the hunt or defending turf, and that increases the fight-or-flight stress responses in those around him.

If Mogil is right about human males routinely producing stress in others just by being on the premises, then the effect on research could extend to many other lab animals besides rodents. And not just lab animals, pets as well, James Owens suggests at Weird and Wild.

Not to mention how it might illuminate social interactions in Homo sap.


Science blogging and grant proposals

Over the years I’ve heard scientists speak anxiously about whether blogging will affect their research careers for the worse, keep them from getting promotions and funding. They believe their colleagues often think blogging is a time-wasting drag on research and that bloggers are just not serious people. I suppose that’s why some of them–high-profile ones too–blog pseudononymously.

High profile UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen–that’s his real name–blogs at the well-known Tree of Life. He has finally broken his silence over a 2012 grant reviewer expressing doubt that he could lead a big new project given “his high time commitment to his blog.”

Eisen drafted a hot response at the time, but decided not to send it. He did consult the program officer, who assured him that the comment had no effect on the grant decision.

He says he’s now sorry he didn’t fire away immediately, and so he has posted the unsent draft, with redactions of pungent language. He really likes online activity, he says, and also thinks it contributes to his work.

I know what he means.


No balm for broken hearts?

The very fashionable notion of using stem cells to repair broken hearts suffered a double whammy this week. Which led the very reliable Larry Husten to wonder in a Forbes post, “A House Of Cards About To Fall?”

Husten was writing specifically about a new open-access paper from the British Medical Journal, a meta-analysis of papers about bone marrow stem cells as therapy for damaged hearts. It was published Tuesday (April 29.) The first word of the BMJ paper’s title is “Discrepancies,” which suggests, correctly, that it will not be friendly.

“Discrepancies” strikes me as a tactful term to describe the hundreds of internal contradictions in these papers. Át MedPageToday, Todd Neale tells us that, in 133 reports of 49 trials, the BMJ authors found 604 discrepancies, defined as “two (or more) reported facts that cannot both be true because they are logically or mathematically incompatible.”  What’s more–and this is the really juicy bit–the more “discrepancies” in a report, the more likely it was to claim positive results for stem cell treatments.

Husten concludes that “many of the most promising results in the field are illusory and that the potential benefits of stem cells to treat heart disease are probably far more modest than we’ve been led to believe. The study also raises disturbing questions about ethics and research conduct (and misconduct) in a high-flying field.”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, on that same day the Cochrane collaboration also came up with its meta-analysis of papers about bone marrow stem cells for heart repair, which ScienceInsider’s Jennifer Couzin-Frankel said analyzed many of the same trials covered in the BMJ paper.  The Cochrane paper was marginally more positive, reporting limply that there is “some evidence that stem cell treatment may be of benefit in people both with chronic ischaemic heart disease and with heart failure.” But, it said, the evidence is of low quality and highly variable. Not a ringing endorsement. The good news is that the procedure doesn’t seem to have killed many people.

Todd Neale’s post, which also reported on the Cochrane paper, quoted Clyde Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University and a past president of the American Heart Association, as saying that the studies are difficult to do, but at some point this question must be asked: “‘Do we know anything more now, are we any closer to the clinical application of these technologies than we were a decade ago?’” Yancy’s answer: “No.”

Three-dimensional rendered microcomputed tomography of treated monkey heart 3 months after human embryonic stem cell injection. Arteries perfusing the graft are red. Other vessels are grey in the uninjured cardiac tissue and white within the graft. Credit: Veronica Muskheli

Three-dimensional rendered microcomputed tomography of treated monkey heart 3 months after human embryonic stem cell injection. Arteries perfusing the graft are red. Other vessels are grey in the uninjured cardiac tissue and white within the graft. Credit: Veronica Muskheli

Hope springs eternal, though. Ian Sample at The Guardian (and others) reported on what the hed writer, sigh, called a “breakthrough”: the repair of damaged monkey hearts by injection with human embryonic stem cells. The paper was published Wednesday (April 30) in Nature.

The embryonic stem-cell treatment must be done soon after the heart attack, before scar tissue can form. The animals also developed irregular heart beats that disappeared eventually. Clinical trials could begin in four years.


You’ll be flabbergasted to hear that Fox News doesn’t want to discuss climate change.

Michael Moyer, a senior editor at Scientific American, was invited to appear on Fox News Wednesday (April 30) to discuss future tech trends. In a preliminary back-and-forth to decide on topics before the show, Moyer told a producer that a big trend would be dealing with climate change. The (emailed) reply,  “can we replace the climate change with something else?”   So they did, and Moyer blogged about the experience at Observations.

Business Insider then reported a Fox News denial, quoting a Foxy lady thus, “We worked closely with him and his team and there was never an issue on the topic of climate change,” Suzanne Scott, SVP of programming at Fox News, said in a statement. “To say he was told specifically not to discuss it, would be false.”

Except there is that email.

According to Jack Mirkinson at HuffPo, Fox News and its talking heads took their revenge yesterday (Thursday, May 1), indulging in Fox’s trademark name-calling. “Coward,” for one. What was cowardly about what Moyer did?

In his post, Moyer says Fox took the interview video down. If so, it is now back up. But if you’re expecting fireworks, you’ll be disappointed. Perfectly friendly. Not to say banal.

On the left, Michael Moyer. On the right, all others. This is, after all, Fox News. HT for the screenshot to TPM.

On the left, Michael Moyer. On the right, all others. This is, after all, Fox News. HT for the screenshot to TPM.

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A Goldilocks exoplanet and marijuana on the brain


Everything you ever wanted to know about Kepler 186f

The planet Kepler 186f is 500 light years away, might have liquid water, and orbits a red dwarf star. Red dwarfs are cooler, yes, and dimmer, but they also burn for billions of years longer than our Sun–meaning that life has lots more time to possibly maybe happen there than the 3 billion years it took here. Nearly a thousand exoplanets have been discovered so far. This is the  one that most closely resembles Earth.

Hence the wild excitement.

But curb your enthusiasm; there are a lot of ifs and maybes. One tipoff that circumspection is advisable is that Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, who has been known to sometimes jump up and down and yell “Wowee!!!!” isn’t doing that about Kepler 186f.

On the left, us. On the right, a fantasy/science fiction conception of Kepler 186f, which almost certainly doesn't look like this. Although they probably got the relative sizes of the two correct. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

On the left, us. On the right, a fantasy/science fiction conception of Kepler 186f, which almost certainly doesn’t look like this. Although they probably got the relative sizes of the two correct. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

Plait notes that astronomers have discovered dozens of planets in the habitable zone around stars, the zone where water, if it exists, could be liquid. Kepler 186f is special because it’s 1.1 times Earth’s size, making “it potentially the most Earth-like planet we’ve yet found.” Italics are his.

The known unknowns about Kepler 186f

The fact is, Plait says, we don’t know a lot about Kepler 186f and probably never will. “The techniques used to find planet masses aren’t up to the task for this planet—the star is too dim to get reliable data. The same is true for any air the planet might have as well. And without that, we don’t really know its surface temperature. . . So we don’t know if this planet is like Earth, or more like Venus (with an incredibly thick, poisonous atmosphere that keeps the surface ridiculously hot), or like Mars (with very little air, making it cold). It could be a barren rock, or a fecund water world, or made entirely of Styrofoam peanuts,” he says.

I am guessing he is kidding about the styrofoam, but the question of atmosphere is pretty major. Kepler 186f is at the far edge of the star’s habitable zone. It gets only a third as much light as Earth, and it is colder. So it would need a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere to maintain water as a liquid, according to Alexandra Witze at Nature.

Other reasons for caution: Kepler 186f could have far less surface gravity than Earth–or far more. At ScienceNow, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee says it could be tidally locked to its  star, just as the Moon’s rotation is synchronized to Earth. In that case, half the planet would be permanently sunny and the other half permanently dark and cold. If there is an atmosphere, this heating pattern might cause permanent mighty winds.

NASA is guessing that it’s a rocky planet like Earth, but its mass and composition are in fact unknown. A member of the NASA team calls the planet, which is 10% bigger than Earth, an Earth cousin rather than an Earth twin, according to Nathan Ingraham at The Verge.

But maybe this planet is better than Earth?

On the other hand, at SciAm’s Observations, Michael Moyer speculates that Kepler 186f may be better configured for life than Earth is. The little we do know about it suggests that it might nicely fulfill the requirements for superhabitability.

Nice trees. Must be autumn on Kepler 186f. The lake is overseen  by red dwarf Kepler 186 and other planets in the system. In case you were wondering, this is not a photo.  Credit: NASA/Danielle Futselaar.

Nice trees. Must be autumn on Kepler 186f. The lake is overseen by red dwarf Kepler 186 and other planets in the system. In case you were wondering, this is not a photo. Credit: NASA/Danielle Futselaar.

A superhabitable planet is “one that has all the life-giving features of Earth, but more so,” Moyer says. It’s somewhat bigger than Earth, and for generating life, size matters. A bigger planet would help shield nascent life from radiation. It could have more volcanoes spewing CO2 to warm things up, generating a thicker atmosphere that would cling to the planet because of greater surface gravity. Also, lots more space for things to grow and ramble. And a long-lived red dwarf sun that would give life loads of time to get up and running. We don’t know about volcanoes and an atmosphere, but Kepler 186f is bigger than Earth and is orbiting a life-giving (maybe) red dwarf.

Department of Wild Speculation

Switching from speculation mode to wild speculation mode, let me acquaint you with Hontas Farmer, blogging at Quantum Gravity. He is investigating signals from the Kepler 186 system via SETI Live, a volunteer search for signals from intelligent life. Farmer says he has detected something that might might might be a very noisy and degraded broadband signal coming from the Kepler 186 system.

Farmer has concluded there is a better than 50-50 chance that the system harbors not just intelligent life, but intelligent life that is at least as technologically advanced as we are. Or was 500 years ago, the red dwarf’s light having taken that long to be collected by the SETI telescope.

For another leap of the imagination, think on this. If we did find out that Kepler 186f was looking lifelike, 500 light years is far, far away. Even traveling at the speed of light, which as you may know we can’t, it would take many human generations to get there. So you will be pleased to learn that a scientist at NASA (of course) is looking to solve that problem. He’s working on a warp drive. Really. It must be true because I read it in Scientific American.

A guest blog post by Mark Alpert, who (also) writes science fiction, says that physicist Harold “Sonny” White is working on “a system that could generate a bubble of warped spacetime around a spacecraft. Instead of increasing the craft’s speed, the warp drive would distort the spacetime along its path, allowing it to sidestep the laws of physics that prohibit faster-than-light travel. Such a spacecraft could cross the vast distances between stars in just a matter of weeks.”


The Enterprise visits Kepler 186f. This is not a photo either.

The Enterprise visits Kepler 186f. This is not a photo either.

Ad astra ad nauseam

I’ve had enough of the atmosphere around Kepler 186f for now, but if you haven’t, there’s more, lots more.

Joseph Stromberg has an explainer on exoplanets at Vox.

The paywalled paper on Kepler 186f is from Science. Here’s the abstract.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit has posted an exhaustive analysis of the extensive media response to Kepler 186f. With links, of course. Many.

Calling the pot black

I have written here before about the likely enormous impact of the coming cavalcade of cannabis. We have, somewhat heedlessly, launched a massive experiment. There’s been a revolution in public attitudes on marijuana use–not to mention striking policy changes like legalization in Colorado and Washington state, and legal medical marijuana in 21 other states plus the District of Columbia, and the Justice Department’s declaration that it doesn’t plan to enforce the federal law against weed.

It’s inevitable that this massive policy turnaround will encounter pushback. Some of it will come to us wearing a science costume. We got two headline-grabbing examples of that  this week, both involving medical research and both involving the perennially maddening writerly confusion over the difference between correlation and causation.

I yearn for the day when all people who write about science and medicine, not just a select group, recognize the difference and routinely explain that difference to readers. When wearing my cynical hat, I suspect that lots of those who pretend ignorance in fact know the difference perfectly well, but ignore it because otherwise they would lose sexy stories that editors love.

Marijuana on the brain

Let’s start with the study purporting to show brain differences between users and nonusers. A distressing number of media outlets fell for it, despite the fact that this was yet another example of correlation, not cause.

That undeserved attention generated its own pushback from several science-savvy sources. In fact, I was a bit heartened by how much denunciation popped up. There looks to be an expanding cadre of well-informed debunkers out there, and I hope hope hope they’re not all preaching to the choir.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn excoriated the positive coverage and also linked to the excoriations of others, notably John Gever’s MedPageToday post. Gever’s hed spoke of “Bungling the Cannabis Story.” Raeburn also quoted Berkeley computational biologist Lior Pachter, who blogs at Bits of DNA. Pachter declared that the study was “quite possibly the worst paper I’ve read all year.”


So much is wrong with this research–an MRI study, always a cause for caution–that it’s hard to understand why the usually classy Journal of Neuroscience, published by the very respectable Society for Neuroscience, gave it a home. Not only that, the SfN press release about the paper encouraged misinterpretation, as both Raeburn and Gever point out.

Gever noted that the release allowed senior author Hans Breiter of Northwestern to mischaracterize the study, saying it challenges “the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences.” Gever’s comment: “Um, no, it doesn’t — not without before-and-after MRI scans showing brain structure changes in users that differ from nonusers and documentation of functional impairments associated with those changes.”

Said Raeburn, “Reporters who relied on that release remind me of the student who fails his test because he copies the wrong answers from the kid sitting in front of him. The release might help explain why the coverage was so bad. But it’s no excuse.”

And then there were the study subjects.  As Maya Szalavitz points out at The Daily Beast, both the experimental (users) and control groups (nonusers) of 20 each were selected for being in good health and normal. Users who displayed any kind of impairment were excluded. So the brain differences the pot-smoking subjects were said to display were not associated with any abnormalities, any cognitive or mental problems. And the paper does not and cannot show that the brain differences were caused by pot.

Under the hed “The very political neuroscience of cannabis,” Mark Kleiman tore the paper apart at a group blog, The Reality-Based Community. Kleiman is a drug policy expert at UCLA; the LA Times calls him “pot’s go-to guy.” He says the brain differences finding “might mean
1. That using cannabis at that level causes changes in the brain.
2. That something else correlated with cannabis use – for example, use of other illicit drugs – causes changes in the brain.
3. That something about having that kind of brain makes cannabis use more attractive to people to have it than it is to people who don’t.
4. That the brain differences and the cannabis-use differences between the two groups are the product of some unknown third factor.”

Salavitz says, “Marijuana itself may or may not impair cognition— but discussions of marijuana policy clearly do so, in a way that is detrimental to our political health.” Jacob Sullum concluded similarly, at the libertarian group blog Hit and Run, that the paper “provided powerful evidence that MRI scans cause shoddy science reporting.”

For an example of anti-pot pushback, see Babbage at The Economist, who described the paper enthusiastically and then leapt forward with this claim, which is not only a non sequitur, it is nonsense: “[E]ven modest recreational pot-smoking seems to set the brain on a path to addiction.”

Is marijuana an affair of the heart?

Another paper, this one from French researchers, suggests a relationship between pot smoking and heart problems. It’s open-access, and also from a professional group, the Journal of the American Heart Association.

It was published Wednesday, so there hasn’t been much time for commentary yet. LiveScience has taken it on twice, though. Bahar Gholipour reported on the paper, which describes 2000 cases of complications related to marijuana and says 35, less than 2%, involved heart problems, including 20 heart attacks and 9 deaths.

Gholipour points out that this, too, is an example of correlation, not cause. Also that many of the patients had a family history of heart disease and/or other risk factors such as a previous history of heart problems, high blood pressure, and drinking.

In a HuffPo post, Amanda L. Chan notes that 21 of the 35 smoked tobacco. Also that well over a million Frenchpersons are believed to be regular pot users. Chan quotes several naysayers, including doc Valentin Fuster of Mt. Sinai (the hospital, not the home of the Ten Commandments.) He says the evidence is not clear whether pot is or is not riskier than tobacco smoking. He’s quite wrong.

LiveScience also published distressed commentary on the paper from a cardiologist with a book to sell. Suzanne Steinbaum says flatly “marijuana can be damaging to your heart.” She also is worried about the potential for abuse as legalization expands. “Does this potential for abuse exist with marijuana? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s important that we ask the right questions and present the facts about marijuana.”

Who can disagree with that? For a clear and engaging 5-minute summary of what the data on pot use actually show about health effects, see what Incidental Economist Aaron Carroll has to say in his Healthcare Triage video.

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A call for revolution in US science, dino microbes in space, vaginas in the lab

US science is in a fix, so let’s fix it

“It’s as if the Pope and three leading cardinals held a press conference predicting the collapse of the Catholic church. These people know what they are talking about and we need to listen.” This from Incidental Economist Bill Gardner.

On the other hand, “This should be read as a mea culpa, given the authors’ roles in creating this problem in the first place,” a tweet from Jonathan Gitlin, policy wonk and occasional Ars Technica contributor.

Sandcastle and sand burial. Credit:  Xiaphias

Sandcastle and sand burial. Credit: Xiaphias

Both are talking about Monday’s editorial in PNAS, the highest profile call yet for revolutionary changes in the US system for supporting biomedical research. (Access to free PDF here.) The authors could hardly be more magisterial: Bruce Alberts (former president of the National Academy of Sciences and  editor of Science), Marc Kirschner (cell biologist, founder of Harvard’s systems biology department), Shirley Tilghman (molecular biologist, HHMI investigator, former president of Princeton), and Harold Varmus (Nobel laureate, former NIH Director, current NCI Director.)

Some of their proposals: Train fewer academic scientists. Convert the ones we are training from slave labor funded out of a lab’s grants to government training grants, which will help slow the flow. Train grad students for careers outside academic research. Turn postdocs into salaried staff scientists. Don’t pay faculty solely by grants either. Reform grant payments for institutional overhead. Reduce the competition to publish in the classiest journals. Reform the grant review process to stress innovative proposals and reduce the emphasis on translational research.

Nothing new and nothing doing

Two main points about this clarion call (aside from the fact that all four distinguished authors have contributed materially to potentiating the problems they now deplore): (1) There’s nothing new here; and (2) There’s very little chance the suggested reforms will come about.

The fact that the US is creating an oversupply of scientists has been known for decades, at least to those who will listen. An NAS report from a committee Tilghman chaired came out in 1998. I (and others) wrote about it in the 1980s. In their sharp summary and critique of the new paper, Beryl Benderly and Jim Austin note at Science Careers that a warning against a surfeit of scientists was part of that much-venerated modern roadmap for science, Vannevar Bush’s “Endless Frontier” report, in 1945.

I commend the subtly scathing Benderly-Austin post to your attention not just because it provides splendid context for understanding the editorial, but also because it lives at Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, surely the heart of the science establishment. (Disclosure: Beryl is an old, dear friend, and I have written for Jim Austin, but I’m quite sure I’d be paying the compliment even if that were not true.)

That dense tangle of vested interests

From their lips to God’s ear. Benderly and Austin are hopeful that the glamour of the editorial’s authors and the fact that it’s appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences could, at last, prompt people in positions to make changes to start making them. But, they also say, “The PNAS article authors do not provide a practical strategy for overcoming the dense tangle of vested interests and perverse incentives that protect the current system.”

An Australian sand castle 10 feet high. Credit: G. King

An Australian sand castle 10 feet high. Credit: G. King

And of course a practical strategy for overcoming the dense tangle of vested interests is exactly what’s needed. Can the prestige of Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, and Varmus tip the balance?

See John Timmer at Ars Technica for fine explications of of those vested interests. Timmer is not particularly hopeful. He points out that a seemingly obvious solution, more money for science, is not only not forthcoming but also would only intensify the problems, not solve them.

Pessimism seems warranted, since changing the system in the ways Alberts et al. suggest would gore oxen galore. Timmer points out that those who can make needed changes won’t like them and will resist. Moreover, implementing them will require cooperation from dysfunctional politicians, none more dysfunctional than the House Science Committee.

The stench of elitism and other objections

Here’s a smattering of additional commentary by scientist-bloggers who have thought about these issues a lot, and written a lot about them too.

Mike the Mad Biologist: “the grant review proposals are just daffy. I would argue we need more junior people closer to the research as well as non-academic researchers (i.e., from institutes and companies when appropriate) as reviewers.”

Ken Weiss at The Mermaid’s Tale, to which an HT for the sandcastle motif. Weiss says the problems are not only at NIH; some areas of the National Science Foundation budget may be cut as much as 20 percent in just one year. He advocates “a frank but non-partisan national discussion of what kinds of science and scholarship are most important and to phase in more funds for those and less for areas that, no matter how legitimate, are just less vital these days or less promising of major new discoveries.” Setting aside the near-impossibility of initiating a frank but non-partisan national discussion on any topic whatever, that sounds like the road to more translational and applied research. Quite different from the emphasis on basic science that Alberts et al. advocate.

Drip sand castle. Credit: Henry Mühlpfordt

Drip sand castle. Credit: Henry Mühlpfordt

Drugmonkey sees good things here, but. “What I don’t like about these proposals is the stench of elitism that encircles them. . . The alternative that is being proposed here is that we select good scientists at the beginnings of their careers and that is it. They get the money even if someone else has a better idea. . . The racket will be dominated by pedigree, you better believe it. Not good.

I have a bone to pick with those dinosaur-microbes-in-space stories

NASA plans to send a few dozen kinds of microbes to the Space Station to see, it is said, how they fare. The germ launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has (of course) been delayed; it’s now scheduled for today (Good Friday, April 18, 2014.)

The microbes are said to have come from various publicity-attuned venues, one of which is Sue, the T. rex fossil that Chicago’s Field Museum periodically waves in front of reporters. Kim Bellware tells you about it at HuffPo.

At no point do any of the stories I’ve read make clear that this is not likely to be a microbe native to dinosaurs. It has been identified as the sticky-sounding Paenibacillus mucilaginosus. The researchers who did its genome say it is a growth promoter found in microbial fertilizers in China. Originally, apparently, a soil bug.

I am skeptical of this escapade. It lacks seriousness.

Tissue-engineered vaginas. No smirking allowed.

This one doesn’t lack seriousness. In fact, it’s a masterful example of bioscience geared to fixing a real-world medical problem, published in  a most respected journal (The Lancet), but also guaranteed to grab eyeballs.

In this research, tissue engineering has reached an apotheosis of sorts. It has achieved functioning vaginas grown in a lab. Well, functioning once they had been implanted in patients who lacked them.

Beginning eight years ago, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine took a bit of tissue from the vulvas of teenagers with a congenital deformity called Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome and grew the tissue into vaginas. (The syndrome, which results in an underdeveloped or missing vagina and uterus, is fairly common; NIH says it occurs in about 1 in 4500 newborn girls but is often not discovered until adolescence.)

Bahar Gholipour described the process in detail at LiveScience. It takes about six weeks to grow a vagina. “Once the organs were ready, doctors surgically created a cavity in the patients’ bodies, and stitched one side of the vaginal organ to the opening of the cavity and the other side to the uterus,” Gholipour says.

The patients have been followed for at least five years. The researchers report that the vaginas are functioning normally, including sexual intercourse.

At io9, Robert Gonzalez says the lab-grown vaginas may have other applications, for example in cancer and sex reassignment surgery. He is also looking forward to the lab-grown penis that he says is in the pipeline.


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Eyes on the Medicare data dump: Cautions and cautionary tales

On Wednesday came the government release, finally, of Big Data on Medicare payments to medical practitioners for 2012. The beginning, one hopes, of release of many more years of data in aid of trend-spotting. Also, surely, some reining in of the grossest of these payments. Surely?

The data will keep science and medical writers busy for some time. You can find news about Wednesday’s massive Medicare data dump everywhere, but here’s Jordan Rau’s compact opener for Kaiser Health News: “The federal government published data tracing the $77 billion that Medicare paid to physicians, drug testing companies and other medical practitioners throughout 2012, and what services they were being reimbursed for. The data cover 888,000 different practitioners. More than 6,000 procedures are included, and the full database is so large that it requires statistical software to analyze it.”

At a Business Day post by Andrew Pollack and Reed Abelson there’s a link to the New York Times‘s interactive graphic permitting easy-peasy lookups of what individual practitioners got from Medicare by locale. The two docs who saved me from major surgery 3 years ago, and probably also saved my life, are not listed because they are not in private practice; they work in academic institutions and are salaried. Handsomely, I hope.

Big data can sometimes be misleading

Most writers focused, not surprisingly, on the most eye-popping payments. Heaven knows there were great riches to choose from. But many writers also dove a little deeper. At Wonkblog, Jason Millman listed the Medicare Top Ten multi-millionaires, but also explored what expenses they claimed. For 7 of the 10, a huge proportion of their reimbursements went for drugs administered on site. So I guess it’s not the poor beleaguered docs who are soaking the taxpayers after all. It’s the pharmas.

Rising Cost of Healthcare
A Business Day post by Denise Grady and Sheri Fink shows how the data can mislead. One example: a family medicine physician at the University of Michigan Health Services got $7.58 million in 2012 for more than 207,000 patients. Unbelievable, right?

Except, as it turns out, the doc directs a Medicare project involving 1600 primary care physicians, and the payments to them go through her office. So I did the math, which works out to well under $5K for each doc, with an average of 130 patients each for the year. At $36.62 per patient. Looks as if the University of Michigan Health Services, where I was once or twice a patient back in the last century, is a model of efficient and reasonably priced–cheap, in fact–medicine. Maybe I’ll go back to grad school after all.

At Medpage Today, John Gever consulted docs, who were mostly unhappy with the data release. Their comments ranged from “IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS WHAT I’M GETTING FOR MY SERVICES,” not really a reasonable reaction to expenditure of public money, to the perfectly sane worry that people would assume the figures reflect what the doc takes home, not gross receipts that must cover staff, overhead, and much else.

Charles Ornstein, a longtime journalist now at ProPublica, laid out several cautions on interpreting the data at Covering Health, the blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists. If a practitioner treats only Medicare patients, he points out, the payment may well be larger than one going to a doc who treats privately insured patients too. Or the doctor may provide services–cancer care, for instance–that are reimbursed at a high rate. Ornstein cautions, “Of course, there may be other reasons that raise questions of fraud, but don’t just assume that because a number is large, a doctor has done something wrong.”

Not seeing eye to eye

On the other hand, there are all those handsomely paid opthalmologists. The 17,000 eye docs, less than .02% of the total number reimbursed, took in 7% of Medicare reimbursements. $5.6 billion, $330,000 per.  Max Ehrenfreund sees opthalmologists through a glass darkly at Wonkblog.

The Pollack-Abelson Business Day post mentioned above features a
defense of opthalmologists. Sort of. It includes a splendid map showing the locales of those most reimbursed.

A billion of the $5.6 opthalmological billion goes for the macular degeneration drug Lucentis. $2000 per injection, often once a month. Most of which, the docs say, they pay to Genentech, Lucentis’s maker. Maybe so, but the docs profit handsomely. The post explains why. Among the reasons, big rebates from Genentech. And I love the tale of the docs who accumulate zillions of frequent-flyer miles by putting Lucentis orders on miles-bearing credit cards.

A Lucentis alternative for macular degeneration, also by Genentech, is off-label use of the cancer drug Aventis. It costs $50 per treatment. Even if Lucentis is better than Aventis–and none of the docs quoted in the post argue that it is–can it possibly be 40 times better?

Keeping my eye on opthalmologists

One does wonder if there’s something about opthalmologists. Here is a personal anecdote, so it’s not data. Well, two anecdotes, but still not data. I lost the sight in my right eye permanently when I was 35. Long story, so let’s move right along to many years later. In the last 10 years, two different opthalmologists in two different parts of the country have urged me to have surgery, offering hope of improving vision in that eye.

medicare card female

For a number of reasons, not least my own not-unskilled research, I know that the surgery they were proposing would not restore vision in that eye, not even partially. When I pointed this out, each of the docs shrugged, conceded that he couldn’t guarantee a satisfactory result, but urged me to consider surgery (by him) anyway. Cheeky. Breathtaking, actually.

Please also note that in each case surgery was a suggestion out of the blue from the doc. I had not come to his office seeking therapy for my bad eye; I was there for other reasons.  A driver’s license, in one case. These were sales jobs, pure and simple, urging a procedure that the salesmen knew to be useless.

Too bad for their bottom lines that the potential customer knew it too. But in this case the potential customer was unusually prepared. Her career was based on looking skeptically at medicine, and she had researched the topic herself. What about the 99.9999etc% of customers who lack that specialized armor? Who rely on physicians to give them medical advice untainted by self-interest?

If this had happened only once I would probably, um, have turned a blind eye; I happen to have one handy. But it has occurred two times, unprompted. That hints at a trend. I wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, I trundled from eye doc to eye doc? I have a hunch that at least some would suggest surgery. I very much hope that most would not. But when I think about Lucentis vs. Aventis, and frequent-flier miles. . . Maybe there is something about opthalmologists.

Medicare data summaries galore

Kaiser Health News is all over the story about the Medicare data release, with summaries of commentary from many mainstream media sources and links to the originals, plus several of its own posts too.

Wonkblog has summaries of commentaries (and links) too.

medicare parts

Department of blind outrage

Release of the Medicare payment data provides justifiable opportunities for dudgeon, none higher than that of Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn. The reason we did not have the data years ago, he explains, is that the American Medical Association has been fighting (successfully) to keep this use of taxpayer money out of the public eye since 1979. As Raeburn points out, the shock generated by these numbers makes it clear why the AMA was so dedicated to keeping it hidden.

He links to a number of pieces explaining the data, but observes, “I’m surprised that the role of the AMA in keeping the data secret hasn’t yet been hit hard in these publications. It’s stunning that it was able to keep this information secret for 35 years; I’m waiting for the legal story that examines how that happened.”

I second that, and how. I’d adore to see Linda Greenhouse turned loose on this story. It was a Federal court decision that freed the Medicare data, though, and I think she only does the Supremes.

One lovely tidbit: It was, believe it or not, the Wall Street Journal that pursued disclosure of the data down the years and won this legal victory for transparency, capitalism be damned. A number of sources have chided the New York Times for not giving the WSJ credit for its doggedness. The complaints were chronicled by Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.  She joined in, biting the hand that feeds her, but also slyly noted that the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Associated Press didn’t mention the Journal‘s role either.

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That climate change report, Jane Goodall’s birth, and Richard III’s death


Gloom and doom

As you probably know, the latest authoritative climate change report was released early this week to a world apparently too exhausted, or distracted, to take much interest in the upcoming calamities. Here’s the nut from Justin Gillis’s New York Times piece: “The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.”

Tweeted by @UrsulaWJ

Tweeted by @UrsulaWJ

The coverage, or rather lack thereof, infuriated Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn. He wants to know why reporters are not demanding government reactions to the report, especially US government reactions. “The boss [Prez Obama] says we can’t deny the reality that urgent dramatic action is necessary to preserve our way of life. His negotiator says the reality is that the U.S. will not fund most of any response with taxpayer dollars. Where is the press, which should be demanding to know what the reality is, or what the pseudo-reality inside the State Department looks like? Are we going to let these guys off the hook?”

Raeburn contrasts this absence of enterprise with coverage of The Mystery of the Lost Plane. “Every scrap of information about Malaysia Flight 370 is being scrutinized for hours by panels of analysts on cable news and across the Internet. Could we take just one or two members of the Malaysia 370 press corps and put them on climate change?”

At ImaGeo, one of the new blogs at Discover, Tom Yulsman focuses on a complex graphic from the report. He offers interpretations of the very busy image, which uses icons to show how climate alterations are affecting ecosystems around the world.  The hed on Annalee Newitz’s post at io9 forecasts famine and water riots, although her lede refers more sedately to water shortages. The tasks ahead, she says, will include genetic alterations of crops to increase drought-resistance and serious improvements to food and water security to defend them against violence. Her post includes a link to the PDF of the report.

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait’s summary even, oddly, manages to find a ray of hope in the report. If you feel like grinding your teeth some more, Plait also includes links to a few naysayers. But at Technology Review, John Reilly says we can’t just adapt to climate change because the effects will be so specific and local and therefore unpredictable. He complains, “the report is a compendium of things that might happen or are likely to happen to someone or something, somewhere. But what does this actually mean for me, or anyone who might read the report?”

Jane Goodall is 80

Jane Goodall’s 80th birthday was April 3. Tributes abound, of course, for the scientist/activist who stimulated worldwide curiosity about the lives and behavior of nonhuman primates, and who then abandoned her fieldwork with Tanzanian chimpanzees to campaign for more enlightened treatment of animals and the environment. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her work stimulated drastic changes in a number of scientific fields, for example animal behavior, primatology, psychology, evolutionary studies, and medical research.

Goodall with the toy chimp that was a birthday present 79 years ago.

Goodall with the toy chimp that was a birthday present 79 years ago.

See Henry Micholls’ long interview, reprinted at the BBC Futures site. National Geographic, a funder of Goodall’s work that doesn’t mind taking credit for it, has collected several tributes here. NIH Director Francis Collins also pays tribute, praising her for working to reduce the use of chimps in medical research. Maria Popova has collected some of Goodall’s writings on science and religion at Brain Pickings. Mary Bagley has put together a Goodall biography at Live Science.

Poor Richard

A bit of a Brit academic brawl has developed over those bones dug up from a parking lot in Leicester and claimed to belong to the much-reviled King Richard III, last of the Plantagenets. Richard was bloodily slain at Bosworth Field, in the 1485 battle that ended the decades-long Wars of the Roses, led to the Tudor regime, and ultimately produced England’s greatest monarch, Elizabeth I.

Richard is reviled largely because he has long been blamed for murdering his potential rivals for the throne, the little princes in the Tower of London. There is a good case that he probably didn’t. The charge of child murder against Richard may have been a political lie fostered by the Tudors. It has been promulgated to this day by a sycophantic William Shakespeare–and a long line of skillful actors thrilled at the chance to play one of the stage’s great villains. The case for Richard is laid out persuasively in Josephine Tey’s terrific detective story, The Daughter of Time.

The bones in the parking lot. Credit: University of Leicester

The bones in the parking lot. Credit: University of Leicester

In 2013 the parking-lot bones were declared to be Richard’s based on substantial historical and archaeological evidence and a study of mitochondrial DNA extracted from them. The new objections come from a couple of historians with no apparent genetics expertise. They are not saying the identification is wrong, only that it’s not 100% certain, according to Macrina Cooper-White at the Huffington Post.

Of course the identification is uncertain, but the evidence is pretty persuasive, including the genetic evidence. The University of Leicester has posted a detailed description of how the mtDNA study was done by looking at mtDNA in two living people who are descended from Richard’s mother through an all-female line. The description includes a long PDF detailing the genealogy of one of those descendants; the other participated in the study anonymously.

It would be a pretty strong story even without the DNA. The skeleton was buried in the spot where contemporary accounts said Richard had been buried. Radiocarbon dating traces the remains to around 1500; Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Osteology reveals that the man died at around age 30; Richard was 32. The body was wounded grievously in a way that suggests the assailants meant to defile it, as history recounts. A reasonable conclusion is that these are the remains of the last Plantagenet King of England.

They’re doing the complete genome of the bones too. That will of course include the Y chromosome. There is some hope that the Y will confirm that the bones are indeed Richard’s through study of genealogies of all-male descent from his forebears. But there are questions of paternity among those forebears. So whatever the Y chromosome seems to show, we can be sure that it will give rise to more disputes and there will be more to write about. I look forward to it.

Richard’s bones must endure one final Tudor humiliation. They are to be reburied in Leicester Cathedral, a domain of the Church of England. Richard was, of course, a Roman Catholic. The Church of England, you’ll recall, was invented as an aid to divorce decades after Richard’s death — invented by the second Tudor monarch, who was, in his way, as notorious as Richard. Henry VIII’s marital/spiritual flounderings made the wealthy Roman Catholic institutions on English soil ripe for rifling. Which is why the remains of the former Franciscan Greyfriars Priory, where history says Richard was buried, lie under a municipal parking lot.

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Science and data journalism at Nate Silver’s new 538

Nate Hate: What the fox doesn’t know yet

Science was supposed to be part of the mix when Nate Silver, the highest profile statistician in history, first announced his move last year. That move being, you’ll recall, that he was taking his 538 political blog away from the New York Times to ESPN and expanding it into the data journalism site. In the intervening months, though, announcements about his plans emphasized his traditional strongest interests, sports and politics. I thought maybe science had been dumped, or at least postponed.

Not so. The newly launched 538 does include science, although the choice of staff writers for the science section is . . . peculiar. There are no science journalists or science writers–so far, at least. The choice of topics has been strange, too.



Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn walks you through some of his objections to the science coverage, which he characterizes as tepid and sometimes silly and also tardy. Such as a piece on calories burned during sex (which, he points out, is a topic already covered by Woman’s Day.)

Raeburn saves his biggest guns for 538′s lead science item of that day, a very odd piece on how to evaluate health news that advises paying attention to your gut feelings about the validity of the story. That was particularly odd advice because it was written by Jeff Leek, an associate professor of biostatistics and oncology at Johns Hopkins and a blogger at Simply Statistics.

Raeburn takes this idiocy–by a statistician!–down easily, and the rest of the site’s opening science pieces as well. But there seems to be no answer to the question that baffled me too: Why would a news site that’s supposedly built on data journalism advise people to base judgements about newsworthiness on “gut feelings,” the antithesis of data?

The climate at 538

One of 538′s listed science contributors is Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is thought of as a climate change skeptic in the sense I outlined here last year–one who acknowledges that global warming is happening but does not favor drastic measures to slow it down. This choice of Pielke, as you may imagine, had a lot of the climate folks foaming at the mouth.



At the Columbia Journalism Review’s Observatory, Alexis Sobel Fitts presents a critique of the 538 science section, including Leek’s piece. But it’s also a takedown of Pielke’s post, which argues that recent increase in the cost of weather damage is a function of increased infrastructure in vulnerable places and has nothing to do with climate change. Judith Curry, a climate scientist and sometime contrarian who blogs at Climate Etc. also considers 538 in general and Pielke in particular, taking exception to Fitts’s comments. Curry also includes links to and quotes from other critiques, pro and con.

538′s data journalism lacks data

Raeburn’s view that 538 so far lacks the data and analyses it claims to be about is shared by others. Mark Coddington, at the Nieman Journalism Lab, links to several critiques of the new 538; many voice that same objection. Most of these posts are not about 538′s science coverage, and some simply seem offended by the very idea of data journalism. Psychologist Adam Waytz, at the SciAm blog The Moral Universe, thinks what he calls “quantiphobes” resist expressing subjective subjects in objective terms. He says, “numbers make things more fact-like, and facts can evoke discomfort.” Scary.

The same objection was posted most pungently by Noah Smith, who says at Noahpinion,
“I’m a big Nate Silver fan, but let me join the chorus of people looking at his new “data-driven” blog site and saying “WTF?”. As far as I can tell, it’s barely data-driven at all! . . .
The problem with the new FiveThirtyEight is not one of data vs. theory. It is one of “data” the buzzword vs. data the actual thing. Nate Silver is a hero of mine, but this site is not living up to its billing at all.”

Smith’s is a detailed and persuasive blast at Pielke, noting that Pielke’s post contains no statistical analysis and doesn’t count costs that should be included, such as reinforcing buildings and relocating crops. Smith objects to other posts at 538 on economic subjects for the same reason: lack of data and data analysis.

The pregnant pause at 538

In adddition to Pielke, Silver has also hired University of Chicago health economist Emily Oster to write about science. Oster’s claim to fame is that she resented the arbitrary-sounding edicts of her obstetrician, such as limits on weight gain. The current advised limit of 35 pounds that so chafed her sounds delightful and doable to me. In my pregnant day, back in the last century, it was just 20 pounds. I didn’t make it.

Anyway, instead of dumping her doc and finding one less autocratic, Oster wrote a book, Expecting Better, that investigated whether there were scientific bases for the pregnancy shibboleths. Her most controversial claim is that there is no evidence that light drinking damages a fetus. (“Light drinking” she defines as 1 drink a day after the first trimester. Isn’t 1 drink daily the recommended limit for all women, pregnant or not?)

Her opening shot at 538 is about pregnancy too, taking on recent studies suggesting that acetaminophen during pregnancy can have long-term consequences for the children. One study suggests behavior problems and slow motor development at age 3, and the other attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 7.

Oster argues that it’s difficult to get a good sense of the risks outlined in these studies because of the traditional way results are reported. She’s right. It’s a problem with many medical studies and a very useful point to keep hammering at. “For example, a 30 percent increase in risk on a baseline of 10 percent means an increase from 10 percent to 13 percent. A 30 percent increase in risk on a baseline of 1 percent is an increase from 1 percent to 1.3 percent. In terms of the number of people affected, these are quite different.” The reported risks of damage in the developmental study turned out to be much larger than the small ones in the ADHD study.



Nor were these randomized controlled trials, raising the question of whether acetaminophen-users are different from nonusers. At a guess, they had more pain, or at the very least lower pain thresholds. Oster wonders whether it was not the drug itself but whatever prompted using the drug that encouraged later ill effects. In the ADHD study the differences were significant; the users had more psychiatric diagnoses than the nonusers.

Also, she notes, the results in both studies could just be wrong. Her example comes from physics, the recent erroneous faster-than-light results. It struck me as an odd to choose a mistaken study from physics for comparison, since there are plenty of examples of errors in biomedical studies. Oster’s bottom line: “We have a tremendous amount of evidence that Tylenol is safe in pregnancy, and now a little bit of evidence that maybe there are some risks. We should, perhaps, be more cautious than before, but only a little.”

This piece is not difficult or technical writing–in fact there’s not much data in it, which seems to be the trend at 538. But it’s more than 1300 words long. An experienced science writer could have explored the same cautions about these studies more crisply, engagingly, and briefly. Half the length or less. Indeed, science writers do this sort of thing every day. It might have involved interviewing Oster or one of her colleagues plus some docs, but science writers do that every day too. And there are a not-insignificant number of science writers who could have done this analysis on their own.

So far, the pieces I’ve seen at 538 are not data-intensive analyses of the sort that Silver specialized in at the Times. I’m not sure who Silver thinks 538′s audience is, but it’s a rare reader–even among pregnant women–who will stick around to wade through 1300+ words. My summary above hit most of the important points and even included a couple of quotes from Oster’s piece. 310 words.

Oster seems to be on the staff, so presumably she will be writing about science often. I assume she will be extending her subject matter beyond pregnancy even though she wrote a book about it. A single topic seems a pretty narrow focus for a science section. Her hire is one way of dealing with the XX Issue, and it’s hard to think of a more XX Topic than pregnancy. But there are tons of other XX subjects loaded with potential for data analysis and commentary. They range from science about women–much to deride and pick apart there–to women in science, where there is much to mourn. OTOH, Oster is a health economist, so she probably won’t be writing only about women.

The future of 538

Having been through a number of startup pub launches myself, two of which have survived for decades, I caution against issuing final judgements about 538 in the first wretched days, or weeks, or even months. I can tell you from experience that if it looks as if the folks at 538 are making it up as they go along, that’s because they are. It’s what you do at a startup.

I expect they’ll get better. Maybe they’ll even figure out how to do data journalism, which would be a boon for everybody. One commentary I read suggested that 538 badly needs a news editor. More than 1, I should think. There’s a lot of work to do.

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INFLATION and the origin of the Universe(s)

“Then nearly 14 billion years ago expansion started.”

Woo-hoo! They’re dancing in the streets over how the Antarctic telescope BICEP2 has just provided the first actual data supporting the inflationary theory, the idea that the universe expanded spectacularly immediately after the infinitesimal point that was the Big Bang. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait says the news is “very esoteric—probably the most layered and complex announcement I’ve ever written about.” So be prepared, it’s Cosmology 2014.

The BICEP2 telescope at twilight, which occurs only twice a year at the South Pole. Credit: Steffen Richter/Harvard University

The BICEP2 telescope at twilight, which occurs only twice a year at the South Pole. Credit: Steffen Richter/Harvard University

The slightly bipolar general response among the knowledgeable is encapsulated by, among others, physicist Max Tegmark, writing at a SciAm Guest Blog, “if the BICEP2 discovery holds up, it will go down as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science.”

We’ll get to the cautions in a moment, but note that Tegmark’s brief pro forma bow to scientific skepticism is swamped by his wholehearted embrace of the findings. And he is by no means an isolated case. Nearly all the blogging acknowledged perfunctorily that the data need confirming, but there seemed to be few true doubters.

Hints last week, the story this week

After an enormous amount of preliminary speculation over the weekend, finally a press conference last Monday. Matthew Francis explains on the wing at Ars Technica, “we’ve detected the first direct evidence of the inflationary phase of the Big Bang, in which the Universe expanded rapidly in size.”

“Rapidly” hardly begins to cover it. “Inflation is a bit of a mind-bender, I’ll admit. It started just about  10-35   or so seconds after the bang. To give you a better idea of how short a time interval that is, we’re talking 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds! And it only lasted until about  10-32  or so seconds later,” Plait says. (At 13.7 Cosmos & Culture, Adam Frank issues a correction. He got the number of zeroes wrong. It’s 34, not 35. I cut-and-pasted the number Plait used, so please direct your complaints to him or to Slate’s copy-editing department.)

The imprint of the Big Bang: B-mode polarization (the swirls) of light coming the first fraction of a second after the birth of the Universe itself. Credit: BICEP2 Collaboration

The imprint of the Big Bang: B-mode polarization (the swirls) of light coming the first fraction of a second after the birth of the Universe itself. Credit: BICEP2 Collaboration

As explained at Symmetry, the data depict the first images of gravitational waves, ripples in space-time.  The violence of post-Big Bang inflation was such that it literally made waves. The observations of the cosmic microwave background—a faint glow left over from the Big Bang, were made by the #BICEP2 telescope. (BICEP is the muscular acronym for the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization experiment; the telescope is situated near the South Pole because the seeing is so good there.) The post contains links to the papers and technical details and notes that a paper has been submitted to Nature.

How to explain the near-inexplicable

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Faye Flam has followed this news since last week, describing how the media, mostly the print media, have been explaining this very big story that is nearly impossible to explain. On Monday she told of the hubbub following last week’s “maddening” press release from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which promised Big News on Monday. Later that day she critiqued post-press conference pieces from several publications, including the New York Times, Nature, Scientific American, the AP, and other sources.

In her Wednesday post, headed “How to write a lede about a phenomenon most readers have never heard of, the discovery of which backs an important theory most people know nothing about” she declares the winner to be Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post. She deconstructs what he did and why it was exactly the right thing to do.

For your education, here’s what Achenbach did: “In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

“This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.”

Sean Carroll (the physics one, obviously) has posted on this news a number of times, but this particular link will bring you to some meditations on the discovery plus a clip of his explanatory interview Tuesday on the NewsHour. Very clear, and then Gwen Ifill asks him what practical value this finding will have in everyday life. His response: None.

So refreshing to hear a scientist defend the urge to satisfy mere curiosity about how the universe began. Among his musings in the post itself: “We tell stories about how the universe works, but we don’t simply tell any old stories that come to mind; we are dramatically constrained by experimental data and by consistency with the basic principles we think we do understand.”

And now, the multiverses

We get a nice, clear history of the theory-building in the decades before BICEP2, plus a brief summary of the findings and some implications, from Tom Levenson, who blogs at The Inverse Square. One of those implications is “That the idea of a multiverse — other patches of space time that underwent an inflationary episode to form island universes of their own — has now gained a boost (if one patch of space-time can inflate, so could others)….”

Formation of multiverses. This illustration depicts a main membrane out of which individual universes arise; they then expand in size through time. Credit: Moonrunner Design

Formation of multiverses. This illustration depicts a main membrane out of which individual universes arise; they then expand in size through time.
Credit: Moonrunner Design

At National Geographic, multiverses are the central topic of Dan Vergano’s post. He observes, “in the models favored by the BICEP2 team’s observations, the process that inflates a universe looks just too potent to happen only once; rather, once a Big Bang starts, the process would happen repeatedly and in multiple ways . . . That means every kind of cosmos is out there in the aftermath of the Big Bang, from our familiar universe chock full of stars and planets to extravaganzas that encompass many more dimensions, but are devoid of such mundane things as atoms or photons of light.”

Multiverses are not an easy idea to get your brain around, but they help explain some cosmological puzzles, Vergano says. Such as why the universe we live in is a universe we can live in, a universe organized around laws of physics that permit biochemistry and so forth, and which makes possible life (or at least life-as-we-know-it.)

Chronic naysayer John Horgan, at SciAm’s Cross-Check, rejects multiverses on grounds that the hypothesis is both unscientific and immoral. Unscientific because multiverses “are totally imaginary and by definition can never be observed.” On immorality, he quotes himself reviewing Brian Greene’s 2011 book The Hidden Reality: “First, at a time when we desperately need science to help us solve our problems, it’s irresponsible for scientists as prominent as Greene to show such a blithe disregard for basic standards of evidence. Second, like religious visions of paradise, multiverses represent an escapist distraction from our world.”

The inflationary skeptics: Let us hope it is not a trick

The most potent skeptic is probably Horgan because his objections are couched in largely nontechnical language and so can be comprehended more widely. At that same Cross-Check post, he writes that he hopes the gravitational wave findings turn out to be true, “because cosmology and physics desperately need a jolt of energy.” But until several conditions are met, he remains doubtful about the inflationary theory.

The first of his conditions is, of course, confirmation of the BICEP2 data by other sources. Sean Carroll told Gwen Ifill that a number of groups will be releasing data on this point in the next couple of years, so we should know whether others agree with the BICEP2 findings pretty soon. Or don’t. Among other things Horgan wants to know is what mechanism drove this vast inflation and why only inflation can account for the gravitational wave findings.

Another skeptic is cosmologist Peter Coles, who blogs at In the Dark and has posted about the BICEP2 findings a number of times. I am too unlettered in this field to have an opinion about his critiques, except to note Coles saying he would place only an even-money bet that what BICEP2 has found is in fact a cosmological signal. He commends the researchers and likes the fact that they have posted their paper and data for all to peer review. He also praises social media’s response and links to the Facebook discussion of BICEP2. I haven’t studied it, but it looks pretty technical. Doesn’t sound like Facebook at all.

Still, Coles says, while the BICEP2 results are interesting, “it is far too earlier [sic] to even claim that they are cosmological, let alone to start talking about providing evidence for or against particular models of the early Universe. . .  this is a measurement of such potential importance that I think we have to set the bar very high indeed when it comes to evidence.”

Even a developer of inflation theory, Andrei Linde, is not entirely convinced. At the New Yorker, Andrea DenHoed presents a video of Linde being told by one of the BICEP2 researchers that the telescope is backing up his theory. Linde says, “Let us hope it is not a trick. I always live with this feeling. What if I am tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful? What if . . .”

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Coke v. WHO on sugar & obesity, gene therapy v. HIV, Obama & Obamacare v. Galifianakis, David Wright v. Office of Research Integrity


They’d like to teach the world to drink Coke

The National Press Foundation recently sent out an invitation to a webinar for journalists next week, something it does occasionally. The ostensible topic is science reporting. But “science reporting” turns out to be just a cover for a public relations campaign on behalf of Coca-Cola.

coca cola

I know this because Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn rose wrathfully to beg writers not to attend and to urge the Foundation to cancel the webinar. As Raeburn pointed out, not only is the session sponsored by Coca-Cola, both the speakers–the only speakers–have been supported by Coke and have used their professional positions as academics to work against public health efforts such as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and posting calorie counts on menus. “But why on earth is a journalism organization allowing Coke to use its cred to legitimize this webinar? This is a scandal.”

Also wrathful is Gary Schwitzer at the HealthNewsReview, where he critiques science and medical journalism. He quotes Raeburn at length, pointing out also that for four years HealthNewsReview has been on the National Press Foundation’s case for these fairly naked PR moves on behalf of its sponsors. He’s written several times about the fact that the Foundation has taken money from Pfizer for seminars on topics such as cancer, where the pharma has a big financial stake.

Sugar, sugar. I just can’t believe it’s true.

Sugar–denigrations of it, that is–is a topic on other recent blogs too. Nearly every week, actually. It’s always a favorite with Marion Nestle at Food Politics. This time she’s writing on the World Health Organization’s call for comments on its proposed guidelines for intake of added sugars. WHO advocates that added sugars account for less than 10% (50 grams) of daily calories; 5% (25 grams) would be even better.

Nestle’s post is particularly sweet and juicy because it fills us in on the politics and lobbying behind why this same guideline never made it into the dietary recommendations WHO issued a decade ago.  The reason is not very complicated. A can of Coke or Pepsi contains about 40 grams of sugar.

Noting that the comment deadline is March 31, Nestle says, “WHO must either think that the research basis of the 10% sugar guideline is much stronger now . . . or that the political landscape has shifted so far in the direction of reducing sugar intake that governments will ignore industry groups this time. I’m not so sure.  I think WHO needs all the help it can get with this one. Submit comments here.  Now!”

It’s possible that Nestle may not be giving changes in the anti-sugar political landscape enough credit. Scott Clement, at the Washington Post blog The Fix, reports that the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that twice as many poll respondents think sugar is the biggest health risk than those that fear marijuana most. OTOH, neither group was a big percentage of the sample. Only 8% were most worried about pot, while just 15% listed sugar as the biggest health risk. Half the respondents were most worried about tobacco and a quarter about alcohol.

Obesity? What obesity?

Obesity? What obesity?

At the PLOS blog Public Health Perspectives, Lindsay Kobayashi doesn’t mince words either: “Refined sugar is one of the worst things found in the Western diet.”  She urges favorable comment to WHO by the end of this month too. Kobayashi also takes the oddly optimistic view that the WHO guidelines might be “a stepping stone for health policy and the food industry to move forward together in reducing refined sugars in processed foods.”

Sure they will. Gail Collins tells us that part of the federal school lunch law taking effect this year will ban candy and soft drinks from school premises, including vending machines. So you can see why the sugar people are in a panic, and why Coke has seized an opportunity to lobby journalists.

Gene therapy for HIV and selling Obamacare

There’s a possibility for gene therapy for HIV infection involving one of the new gene-editing techniques, zinc-finger nucleases. I wrote about it at the Genetic Literacy Project earlier this week.

The post also mentions a couple of developments announced at the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. For example, there’s been another apparent cure of a newborn involving heavy doses of antiretroviral drugs. CROI is a pretty jam-packed conference, but you can catch up quickly on HIV developments if you consult Paul Sax’s Really Rapid Review at his NEJM blog HIV and ID Observations.

Sax concludes with that clip of President Obama gamely pitching Affordable Care Act insurance to Zach Galifianakis on the latter’s mostly lame online mock interview show Between Two Ferns. In case you missed it, my review is that it’s mildly amusing in a couple of spots, especially the finale, but not worth 15 minutes of your time. Or Obama’s, either.

Galifianakis and Obama

Nice to know, though, that those highly desirable Millennials have a different view of Galifianakis. The interview was, for a time, the biggest source of referrals to No word yet on whether the youths stayed to actually buy policies, thus contributing to the actuarial demands of cheaper health insurance. Mother Jones has what it calls “This Week’s Must-Read” piece describing how the interview came to be.

Integrity at the Office of Research Integrity

A few days ago, Adam Marcus reported at Retraction Watch that the head of the Office of Research Integrity had resigned his post last month for reasons that were undisclosed and mysterious. The ORI monitors alleged misconduct by scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Public Health Service. It reports annually, ususually listing about a dozen findings of misconduct. These include cases of fabrication, falsification, and/or plagiarism.

Now we know why David Wright quit, in his own words, because Science‘s Jocelyn Kaiser has obtained a copy of his letter of resignation. It appears at ScienceInsider.

David Wright. Credit: ORI

David Wright. Credit: ORI

It’s a doozy. Most of his job, Wright said, was “spent navigating the remarkably dysfunctional HHS bureaucracy to secure resources and, yes, get permission for ORI to serve the research community.  I knew coming into this job about the bureaucratic limitations of the federal government, but I had no idea how stifling it would be. What I was able to do in a day or two as an academic administrator takes weeks or months in the federal government.”

His beef is with the Office of Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh at the Department of Health and Human Services, ORI’s supervising agency. Kaiser explains, “He writes that ORI’s budget was micromanaged by more senior officials, and that Koh’s office had a ‘seriously flawed’ culture, calling it ‘secretive, autocratic and unaccountable.’ For example, he told Wanda Jones, Koh’s deputy, that he urgently needed to appoint a director for ORI’s division of education. Jones told him the position was somewhere on a secret priority list of appointments. The position has not been filled 16 months later, David Wright notes.”

Ivan Oransky has followed up at Retraction Watch by linking to Kaiser’s post. Several intriguing comments. Wright says he’s been told that his job is to make his superiors look good and to be a team player. He also questions whether a very political agency like OASH is the proper home for a regulatory agency like ORI. And there’s lots more, including his plan to publish his daily log.

The journalist in me is salivating. The citizen in me is in despair over how much ammunition these stories are about to hand over to the enemies of government. No longer will they need to invent victims of Obamacare and the school lunch program. The truth is likely to be awful enough.

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Giant virus, contamination, Svante Pääbo and the Neanderthal Genome, and Sydney Brenner on funding and scientific publishing


That giant virus

OK, sure, I know, Pithovirus, that giant virus they thawed out of the 30,000 year-old Siberian permafrost, is a pathogen specific for amoebas, blah blah blah. But I can’t help wondering what else is going to turn up as the warming Earth releases creatures from the melting of ice frozen many thousands of years ago.

Pithovirus. Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel

Pithovirus. Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel

And I’m not alone. Carl Zimmer mentioned the possibility in his Matters column. Last year a different giant virus was found in a human patient with pneumonia. Vincent Racaniello gives details of this case at his Virology Blog.

At Climate Progress, Ari Phillips is worried too.  And, he notes, so are the researchers themselves, although they are mostly concerned about more recent pathogens that might resurface as the frozen tundra thaws, very serious pathogens such as smallpox.

Pithovirus, the new giant virus, really is a giant, 1.5 micrometers, 25% bigger than any virus previously found. As big as some bacteria, visible in an ordinary microscope. And it’s not like most viruses in other ways, either. It’s got a DNA genome, but it’s small. Pithovirus doesn’t reproduce in typical viral fashion by taking over the cell nucleus, as Ed Yong tells us at Nature News. It violates the usual viral profile in other ways, too. The standard in present-day viruses is to smoosh up the genome to make it as tiny as possible. This guy lets its DNA sprawl, although there is still lots of empty space in its baggy body.

For a primer on giant viruses, see Marcia Stone’s post at Small Things Considered from last November. The existence of these creatures, she says, requires redrawing the Tree of Life.  There’s an argument that giant viruses may be descended directly from lifeforms that existed before the fabled LUCA, the hypothetical last universal common ancestor of all cellular life presently on Earth.


Zimmer quotes a researcher not involved in the Pithovirus work as speculating that the find might not be genuine after all, that the sample might have been contaminated with young viruses. Since I’m a virological ignoramus, I won’t argue that point, except to note that in that case why does Pithovirus seem to be unlike any other virus ever seen?

However, I don’t want to distract from the fact that contamination of samples can be an enormous problem in many fields of research. Contamination is on my mind because I have just reviewed Svante Pääbo’s new memoir Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes for the Genetic Literacy Project.

Left, H. neanderthalensis. Right, Svante Pääbo   Credit: Frank Vinken

Left, H. neanderthalensis. Right, Svante Pääbo Credit: Frank Vinken

This engaging book is obsessed with contamination, although that’s not obvious at first. It briefly describes how the grand old man of ancient DNA became a scientist. It also, as you may have heard, describes Pääbo’s life as a bisexual, although that’s brief too, and the very antithesis of salacious. The memoir is all about sex, but it is not sexy.

Instead, Neanderthal Man is devoted–and devoted is definitely the word–to the years-long ancient DNA project to sequence the Neanderthal genome. Pääbo and his far-flung team did that to an accuracy that exceeds most of the contemporary genomes being sequenced today. The sequencing project was about sex in the sense that its real aim was to discover the aftermath of sex: whether bits of the Neanderthal genome survive in us.

If the book is mostly about doing the Neanderthal genome, doing the Neanderthal genome was mostly about contamination–or, rather, trying to bypass contamination. That meant fishing genuine Neanderthal DNA out of a soup of DNA from other creatures, bacterial and human–extraneous DNA that had, over 40,000-plus years, soaked into every Neanderthal bone they worked on.

Before I read Neanderthal Man, I thought I knew something about contamination of ancient DNA. In fact, though, I had no clue. No matter how well informed you are about genetics, Svante Pääbo will teach you things.


Neanderthal Man also got me wondering about the role of the funding process in smoothing the way for good work, innovative work. Pääbo works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig; in fact, he helped design it. The Max Planck Society funds a staggering 82 such institutes, most in Germany.

In organization the Max Plancks are a bit like the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes–designed around individual researchers who have enormous freedom, and part of that freedom is freedom from having to write grant proposals.

The principle is the same even though the funding sources are different.  HHMI’s money came originally from the estate of a very rich man. Most of the Max Planck budget “is derived from the coffers of the public sector,” which I assume means German taxpayers. Even so, when Pääbo found he needed $5 million more than originally planned to pay for additional sequencing, the money was forthcoming. (In fact, as I recall, the Society gave him more.)

Obviously there is no such possibility with public money here in the US. But there are costs, certainly, to the government funding system we’ve developed here. The Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner rails against some of them in an interview much blogged-about this week.

Sydney Brenner delivering his Nobel Prize banquet speech, 2002. Credit: Hans Mehlin

Sydney Brenner delivering his Nobel Prize banquet speech, 2002. Credit: Hans Mehlin

Brenner argues that with present-day funding practices, Fred Sanger, who won two Nobel Prizes, would not have been able to support his work on the biochemistry that underlies most of today’s biological research. That’s  because he went a decade between publications. Bioinformaticist Mick Watson disputes that at Opiniomics, arguing that if he was working today, Sanger’s findings would have been handed over to a private company  “where the technology would be developed free of the pressures of academic research.” Seems to me there would be plenty of pressure at a private company, although of course not pressure to publish.

Brenner has proposed a funding alternative that he calls the Casino Fund, organized along the HHMI/Max Planck lines of support for an excellent individual researcher who then puts together lab and team to suit. Every organization that gives money to science should take 1% of it and write it off, Brenner declares. “You give it to people like me, to successful gamblers,” he argues. But “all the business people stand up and say, how can we ensure payback on our investment? My answer was, okay make it 0.1%. But nobody wants to accept the risk.”

Brenner also has a lot to say about the scientific publishing industry, none of it complimentary. For takes on this, largely in agreement with him, see Retraction Watch (and many comments), In the Pipleline, and the Mermaid’s Tale.


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