Women and science writing

Women in science writing

The Women in Science Writing: Solutions Summit last weekend at MIT was aimed at seeking ways of rooting out bias against and sexual harassment of women science writers. Here’s the conference Web site, with a link to Maryn McKenna’s assiduous tweeting and Storifys of #SciWriSum14, plus another Storify by attendee Alberto Roca.

women in science writing logo

I expected considerable blogging about the meeting because there were 90 attendees, nearly all writers. But I haven’t been able to find much yet; still early days, I guess. Ed Bertschinger has a brief post at Women in Astronomy. Cris Russell has a more detailed report at CJR’s Observatory blog on science writing.

Russell notes an increase in women going into science writing in bad economic times, a time also when the upending of the publishing industry means fewer and fewer staff jobs. Among the suggested remedies for bias and sexual harassment: A science writers’ bill of rights, an online clearinghouse on sexual harassment, mentoring networks, updated codes of conduct, and efforts to reduce tokenism.

She also describes results from a survey of science writers in which respondents were self-selected. One of them surprised me quite a bit. Fifty-four perecent of the women respondents felt that overt or unconscious gender bias exists in science writing and journalism. That seems low to me. It’s true that overt bias is less than in olden times, but there’s still plenty around. Unconsious bias is pervasive, and because it’s unconscious it will be quite a challenge to eliminate.

Pervasive bias is, well, pervasive. It affects science writers and many others, and it certainly applies in science generally. Just last month I noted the increased inclusion of women in research but  the dearth of research on female lab animals. Earlier this year, Drug Monkey noted that while the sex ratio of NIH grantees had improved dramatically, it was still the case that there are always, always, more men on the list of successful applicants. Microbiologist Jonathan Eisen regularly rails against conference agendas top-heavy with male organizers and presenters at his blog Tree of Life.

At the MIT meeting, reports of sexual harassment were, not unexpectedly, more common than bias reports. More than 80 percent of the women respondents said they had been subjected to sexual comments, unwanted touching, and the like; fewer than 20 percent of the men did. One in three women encountered this bad behavior in professional contexts. That seems low to me too. Perhaps it means that these days potential harassers are laying off because they know they are inviting trouble–which not so long ago was not the case.

Russell also reported on statistics gathered from elsewhere. In a survey of major news organizations, women produced only 35 percent of tech and 38 percent of science stories, and–this surprised me–health stories were produced about equally by men and women. Great news if health writing is no longer a female ghetto; that really is progress.

In anthologies of science writing, about 80 percent of contributions are by men and 70 percent of guest editors are men. Far more men than women are quoted as sources in stories. A lot of these findings are likely to involve that hard-to-get-rid of unconscious bias. But identifying the problem is the first step in getting rid of it. Consciously.

The state of women

Bias and sexual harassment are plenty burdensome for nearly all women, and in many parts of the world they suffer lots worse than distasteful dirty talk. They are sequestered and swathed head to foot. They are barred from education. They are beaten and tortured. They are slaughtered at birth, and raped and murdered as children and adults.

Here in the privileged West, we are living in the best time and place for women in the 200,000 years of our species’ existence. The best so far, if still imperfect.

Good to keep in mind, our great good fortune in being here and now and having the tools to do even better. But it does give us a different set of barriers to beat. Also, it’s not clear that losing desirable assignments and promotions and undergoing sexual harassment are bigger problems for women science writers than for women in other lines of work.

Obviously consciousness-raising within a group is key to fixing the problem, although maybe the second order of business is to get beyond preaching to the converted. How to reach the folks who need to have their heads banged together because they can make the bias-changing decisions? It might make sense to collaborate with other professional groups to brainstorm solutions.

Scicurious revealed!

I have several times cited posts by Scicurious here at On Science Blogs. I especially admire her deconstructions of neuroscience research. Nobody does a better job of science blogging, and that’s not just my opinion. She’s won lots of awards.

But last year Scicurious moved out of the shadows of pseudonymousness and stood revealed as: Bethany Brookshire. I was going to say that she switched careers, but what she really did was let go of one of her careers–bench scientist–in order to give full time to the one that made her a famous blogger: science writing.

scicurious psuedonymity-kitteh

She landed a terrific–paying!–job at Science News, where she writes for the magazine and still blogs as Scicurious once weekly.  She told me in an email: “the rest of the time I run the Eureka! Lab blog.  A blog that is devoted to getting more students interested and inspired in STEM (watch out for a post coming out early next week, it’s on squirrels and I’m so excited about it!). The Eureka! Lab blog has posts up to 5 times a week and is written at a 7th grade level.”

She also has a several-year perspective on science blogging and “tribes” in science writing: “[I]t’s funny how the science blogsphere has changed over time. Much ‘official’ science blogging is now just like science reporting, with outside comment, etc, and makes me wonder why on Earth bloggers still get paid less (though it should be noted, as a staff writer, I get what staff writers get. PHEW!).

“I’ve also noticed recently, as I’ve moved into the field, that science writing has its own ‘tribes,’ just like academic science. Who went to what journalism program, who’s written for what publication, etc. I realized that I’m part of the ‘blogging’ tribe that’s been around since 2006 or so.”

Early this year, at her blog Neurotic Physiology, Brookshire posted on her decision to leave academia. A noteworthy post on the nature of failure, one that drew many comments–including some from Ed Yong relaying his experience with failure.

Comforting to realize that it’s possible to fail upward. Is that really failure?

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World Cup! Soccer or football! Turing Test & artificial intelligence!

Soccer to ‘em

World Cup soccer/football blah blah blah, world’s most popular game blah blah blah, but Brazil deserves a World Cup for its performance in saving its Amazon rainforest and preventing carbon dioxide emissions, according to a paper Science is publishing today. Bouncing up and down with little glad cries, Andrew Revkin gives details at Dot Earth.

Credit: Roman.b   Read all about the Brazuca at http://goo.gl/IEG9Pc

Credit: Roman.b
Read all about the Brazuca at http://goo.gl/IEG9Pc

It’s a stunning achievement. The forecast is that clearcutting the Amazon rainforest will have stopped by 2020. In 2005, nearly 20,000 square kilometers were being cleared every year. Last year, Amazon clearcutting was down 70%, to well under 6000 square kilometers. That’s a world record for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, down more than a billion metric tons. At the same time, Brazil is producing more soybeans and beef on the same amount of land. The gains, researchers say, are fragile, but real.

A post at New Scientist celebrates this and also  other Brazilian science: research on a vaccine for schistosomiasis, building a dark matter detector under the Andes, and a plan to use genetically modified mosquitoes as a control for dengue fever. Brazil is also getting into the space business and has a program to encourage entrepreneurs. And you don’t have to be Brazilian to qualify.

Meet Tolypeutes tricinctus

The three-banded armadillo, Tolypeutes tricinctus–or, rather, a peppy Disneyesque version called Fuleco that bears little resemblance to the very homely real animal–is the World Cup mascot. T. tricinctus was picked, I guess, because in situations when it feels that armor isn’t enough, it rolls itself into a spherical shape that to some looks a bit like a soccer ball.



Fuleco is everywhere, but T. tricinctus, which is easy to catch and barbecue, lives only in a Northeast corner of Brazil and has been classified as “vulnerable” to extinction. FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, has attempted to wrest some benefit for its universally despised position as soccer’s governing body by saying its choice of the armadillo is an attempt to help save it. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says whether the beast’s mascot status will help remains to be seen.

The real three-banded armadillo, Tolypeutes tricinctus.  Credit: Chatsam

The real three-banded armadillo, Tolypeutes tricinctus. Credit: Chatsam

Henry Nicholls, blogging at the Guardian’s AnimalMagic, is quite a bit more emphatic. In fact, he’s seriously annoyed because FIFA stands to make a great deal of money from Fuleco but, despite its vows, has yet to pledge any of it to saving T. tricinctus. Nicholls has started a Change.org petition to FIFA’s head of Corporate Social Responsibility–is it possible to hold that job with a straight face?–asking for a serious committment to saving the armadillo and its ecosystem. Find the petition (and sign it) here.

World Cup health

The British Medical Journal blogs are using the World Cup to promote healthful behaviors–or at least to decry unhealthful ones. Tiago Villanueva claims research shows physical inactivity of the sort encouraged by hours of soccer/football of both kinds on television is responsible for over 5 million deaths a year, more than smoking. One in three adults and four out of five of kids between 13-15 don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity, 150 minutes per week for adults and an hour a day for adolescents.

Villanueva is also alarmed about the health effects of increases in alcohol consumption during the World Cup. Emergency room visits associated with assaults went up 37% in the UK during the 2010 World Cup.  The Brazilian government has long banned booze in the country’s stadiums, but FIFA persuaded the government to lift the ban. You will be astonished to learn that one of the World Cup sponsors is Budweiser.

Also at BMJ, Gareth Iacobucci reports that in China people are buying fake sick notes purportedly from hospitals in order to stay home from work and watch the games without using up vacation time.

Soccer vs. football

And why do we (and a number of other English-speaking countries) call it soccer when much of the soccer-mad world calls it football? Turns out it’s the Brits’ fault. A prof at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology–an entire school devoted to human movement?–says “soccer” was invented in Britain late in the 19th century, and it was even an upper-class term. An official US Embassy source gives details, saying “soccer” was fabricated because priggish Victorian Oxonians were disinclined to make a nickname out of the first syllable of “Association Football,” which is what the game was called originally.

“Soccer” was used interchangeably with “football” in Britain  until about 1980, but the Brits then dropped it because it had come to be regarded as an American word. Victoria McNally explains at Geekosystem. Doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever accept “football,” at least as long as football, which only occasionally involves kicking, remains the favorite American game.

Still more soccer science–and math, and gambling

This post would be even longer were it not for the fact that the Guardian has rounded up several sciencey World Cup blog postsSciAm has done the same. Several seem to be items from yesteryear. But there’s also an interview with neuroengineer Miguel Nicolelis, the driving force behind that mind-controlled robotic suit that paraplegic Juliano Pinto wore to kick off the games. I’m happy to report that the robotic kickoff happened on schedule.

One new SciAm post is Michael Moyer’s, on the math behind World Cup predictions. But my favorite World Cup gambling post is Daniel Altman’s sly take at Big Think’s Econ201. The secret of successful World Cup prediction, Altman says, is to exploit public ignorance about probability and mathematical models. Here’s how to do it:

Brazil is the strong favorite among bookies, so assign that team a 45%-49% chance of winning. Altman says, “If Brazil comes through, the statistically naive among the public will say, ‘The model was right!’ If Brazil doesn’t win, you’ll say, ‘Well, the chance of Brazil losing was greater than 50 percent,’ and the public will nod in agreement. Either way, the model looks like it was correct.”

Altman suggests gleefully that his is a “win-win strategy that the most visible predictors may in fact be using.” Altman names no names, but  Moyer points out that Goldman Sachs’ Macroeconomics Insights gives Brazil a 48.5 percent chance of winning, and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight puts the odds at 45%.


Touring the Turing Test

Why did so many writers fall for the claim that the artificial intelligence apotheosis had been achieved? That a computer program–a chatbot–had passed the Turing Test and was able to fool judges into thinking a five-minute text-based dialog with a computer was actually a conversation with a 13 year-old Ukrainian boy named Eugene Goostman?

The Turing Test is called that because a version of it was suggested by mathematician Alan Turing, OBE, FRS. The Alan Turing who helped win World War II by cracking German ciphers. The Alan Turing who is a venerated founder of theoretical computer science and the study of artificial intelligence. The Alan Turing who was prosecuted for homosexuality and chemically castrated. The Alan Turing who took cyanide and died in 1954. Yes, that Alan Turing.

Turing in slate at Bletchley Park, site of WWII cryptography triumphs. Credit: Jon Callas

Turing in slate at Bletchley Park, site of WWII cryptography triumphs. Credit: Jon Callas

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn links to a number of sources that simply regurgitated what they were fed in a press release, the claim that Eugene had fooled judges (among them an actor who played the robot Kryten in the 1980s television series Red Dwarf.) Raeburn also cites others, notably bloggers, who had more sense.

Raeburn speculates that reporters can’t resist a good story, and the idea of computers deceiving people is a good story. That’s a slightly more respectable theory than mine, which is that (some) reporters can’t resist the idea of doing a quick-and-dirty piece based on a press release. Digging around to find qualified comment and interviewing outside sources takes time.

This applies, to my dismay, even to sources I have believed are trustworthy–and that certainly know better. At Ars Technica, shockingly, Staff Editor Nathan Matisse, with an entirely straight face, posted the Eugene tale based solely on the news release and other secondary sources. More shockingly, the site doesn’t seem to have taken it back or corrected it or acknowledged in any way that Eugene’s victory was in dispute. At Ars Technica! A Staff Editor! In the Information Technology section! At Ars Technica! Ars Technica!

The scales have fallen from my eyes.

At Neurologica, Steven Novella says that the competition was gamed by pretending that the responses were from a 13 year-old Ukrainian boy, which would help excuse and account for weird responses. In any case, Novella argues, Turing’s test is not “a true test of AI self-awareness, or true AI. It really is just a test of how well a computer can simulate human conversation.”

There is an online version of Eugene available to play with, although the program’s developers say it’s not the same as the competition version. A couple bloggers have chatted with the online version, Tom Bartlett at Pecolator and Scott Aaronson at Shtetl-Optimized. Not only are the dialogues unpersuasive, the two  are remarkably alike,  with Eugene reiterating a few canned responses and questions. This is the best that chatbot programmers can muster?

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Goodbye coal? Female hurricanes are more deadly?


Coal black

At Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait says President Obama’s proposed new plan for slowing down atmospheric carbon dioxide by reducing coal use for generating electricity is huge.

Credit: J.C. Leyendecker, 1918. HT to Melissa Lott at SciAm's Plugged In  http://goo.gl/rLV5SN

Credit: J.C. Leyendecker, 1918. HT to Melissa Lott at SciAm’s Plugged In http://goo.gl/rLV5SN

But is it huge? As a mind set, a psychological Rubicon, an opening wedge for more government action on greenhouse gases and climate change, maybe. But in terms of practical impact on greenhouse gases, not so much. Here’s why.

The aim is to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants as much as 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Brad Plumer summarizes and explains the proposals at Vox–and he points out that the goal is not really as ambitious as you might think.

That’s because natural gas has gotten so cheap, and the Great Recession has reduced power use so much, that power-plant emissions plunged by 15 percent between 2005 and 2013. So they are already halfway to the 2030 goal. They achieved the first half of emissions reduction in well under ten years, and now they have more than 15 years to get the rest of the way. Dot Earth’s Andrew Revkin parsed the proposed rules and assembled several comments on why they aren’t enough.

Plumer followed up his first Vox post with a summary of how the EPA’s new rules would work. A central feature is that there are different emissions goals for each of the 49 states that have coal-fired power plants. That’s going to be fun.

At Watts Up With That, Anthony Watts has turned his skeptical platform over to Patrick Michaels, the high-profile climatologist/climate-change skeptic. Michaels points out, correctly, that there is no chance this new policy will have any detectable effect on global temperature. Thus he agrees with climate-change activists that the policy does not go nearly far enough. He also says the only way the 30 percent reduction can be achieved is by “upgrading almost all combustion units, and the ultimate cost of the upgrades will make coal noncompetitive with much-less-expensive natural gas–fired facilities.”

Um, I think that’s the whole point.


The death of Big Coal is greatly exaggerated

In his two-part roundup of media coverage of the announcement, Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit forecasts that “Big Coal in the US may be looking death in the face. It is unleashing its armies.”  In a second post, Petit praises Paul Barrett’s BloombergBusinessweek analysis of what Barrett calls the phony war on the Obama plan and also partly takes back his forecast of Big Coal’s demise. Turns out that when we reach that coal reduction apotheosis in 2030, coal will still be generating 30% of US electricity. Last year it was 39%.

David Wogan, in a post last fall at SciAm’s Plugged In, argued that EPA rules are not really a War on Coal. Structural and market forces have been attacking coal’s position for some time, so it’s likely that coal will bite the dust eventually anyway, even if the process takes several decades. Natural gas is beating it to death, and nearly all coal-fired power plants are elderly and near-moribund anyway.


Follow the money

Chris Mooney explains at Grist why Republican claims that the new climate rules will wreck the economy are wrong. The US Chamber of Commerce has also issued a report inveighing against what it claims are the enormous costs of the new EPA coal regulations.

Anti-coal protesters at  Australia's Maules Creek mine.  Credit: Greenpeace Australia/AAP

Anti-coal protesters at Australia’s Maules Creek mine. Credit: Greenpeace Australia/AAP

But at his blog Conscience of a Liberal, economist Paul Krugman took a look at their data and found–somewhat to his own surprise, it sounds like–that even the Chamber’s own estimate of $50 billion would amount to only 0.2 percent of GDP. The Nobel Prize-winning economist’s academic technical analysis:”That’s cheap!”

If there is a War on Coal, Jonathan Weisman says at the New York Times, it’s going to be like the War on Tobacco in the 1990s. It will feature buyouts and compensation for the most-affected states. But Weisman quotes Republican economist Doug Holtz-Eakin arguing that the analogy is less than perfect. “In the end, smoking became unacceptable. That was not a legal statement. It was a social statement, and consensus was broad and has held for a long time,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. “Maybe you get there on carbon emissions, but right now, this is an issue for the elites.”

Those compensation programs can be extraordinarily effective. I was living in southern Maryland, at that point a tobacco-growing region, when in the 1990s Maryland launched a program to compensate farmers into giving up tobacco and moving to other crops. The huge leafy plants disappeared from my neighbors’ fields almost overnight, and the ubiquitous tobacco barns fell into picturesque decay with startling suddenness.

A collapsed former tobacco barn in Southern Maryland, once the home of extensive tobacco farming. Credit: © 2010 Fred Powledge

A collapsed former tobacco barn in Southern Maryland, once the home of extensive tobacco farming. Credit: © 2010 Fred Powledge

Where the campaign to reduce coal is analogous to the tobacco buyout is that, like tobacco, coal has serious health effects. And EPA is exploiting that fact in arguing for its program. In his post, Revkin pointed out that the EPA’s new rhetorical approach–talking about carbon pollution rather than carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions–signals that the agency plans to emphasize the immediate health benefits of using less coal.

At the Washington Post‘s new To Your Health blog, Lenny Bernstein describes some of these benefits. The American Lung Association says the plan would  ”prevent up to 4,000 premature deaths and 100,000 asthma attacks” just in its first year. This because power plant emissions contain sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury. All contribute to lung disease, heart attacks and asthma. There will also be lung benefits from a reduction in tiny particles of soot, which clog lungs.


Hericanes and Himicanes

Kind of fascinating, how much statistician ire has been provoked by that PNAS paper claiming that female-named hurricanes have killed more people than male-named ones. The supposed reason being that people in their paths have taken male hurricanes more seriously and gotten out of the way

This false-color image from NASA’s Cassini mission shows the  no-name hurricane  at Saturn’s north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

This false-color image from NASA’s Cassini mission shows the no-name hurricane at Saturn’s north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The statisticians are not objecting to the premise that people respond unconsciously to the relative power implied by male and female names. That seems to strike most of the bloggers as not implausible. But the data and the methodology have statistics-minded commentators jumping up and down with rage. I haven’t seen a single defense, so I conclude that the paper is at best problematic.

For example, the researchers studied hurricane aftermaths from 1950 on, despite the fact that hurricanes all had female names until 1979. You don’t have to be a statistician to find that . . . odd. At The Monkey Cage, statistician Andrew Gelman agrees that including pre-1979 data makes no sense.

The hypothesis might be true, he says, but he doesn’t think the male/female thing is the most important feature of hurricane names. He wonders if it would be more sensible to compare the power implied by some names over others, Omar vs. Irving, for instance. Or whether it’s a good idea to name hurricanes at all, since perhaps names make them seem more cuddly.

A post at the Guardian by evolutionary biologist Grrlscientist and biostatistician Bob O’Hara concludes, “When we compare the data to the model itself, the ‘femininity effect’ of hurricane names completely disappears.” (This post raised a side question for me. Sandy, the megastorm of recent memory that was officially a hurricane for only a part of the time it spent slapping New York and New Jersey around, is classified as female. But Sandy is also a man’s name. Surely the single-sex classification can’t be kosher?)

Gelman refers us to an analysis by the mathematically minded sociologist Jeremy Freese at Scatterplot. Freese has problems with the model too, calling the effect sizes it implies “astonishing.” The paper’s own example claims “that if a hurricane named Eloise killed 42 people, the same hurricane named Charley would be predicted to only kill 15.” In other words, most of the deaths could be prevented if only the hurricane had a masculine name.

Freese considers the actual hurricane Andrew, which was severe in terms of damage but killed only 62 people. The paper’s model fits Andrew well, predicting 59 deaths. But, says Freese, “if the hurricane had been named Diana instead, the model predicts over 25,000 people would have died.” This implies “that tens of thousands of Floridians owe their lives to the fact that Andrew was not preceded by another storm that season, because then what we know as Hurricane Andrew would have been called Hurricane Bonnie.” The dramatically different fatality estimate for Diana (or Bonnie) doesn’t seem likely, does it?


What we have here is another failure of science communication

Freese is also trenchant on the topic of how scientific studies are relayed to the public. I will quote him at length because he is identifying an increasing problem: hype for a piece of research where the hype emanates not originally from journalists (although they are usually blamed for it), but from the authors of a paper and their research institutions.

A different choice of false color for this  image of a Saturnian hurricane from NASA’s Cassini mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

A different choice of false color for this image of a Saturnian hurricane from NASA’s Cassini mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Just last week I described such a case here, involving a paper on the microbial inhabitants of the human placenta. The first author gave  interviews in which she implied that the paper showed a connection between gum disease and unhealthy pregnancy, especially premature delivery. The paper did not show that, but top-flight science journalists nonetheless relayed her declarations. I discussed this paper and the media clamor surrounding it in a column last week at the Genetic Literacy Project.

In the case of the gendered hurricane naming, Freese points out (and the emphases are his): “The authors’ university issued a press release with a dramatic presentation of results. The release includes quotes from authors and a photo, as well as a quote from a prominent social psychologist calling the study ‘proof positive.’  So this isn’t something that the media just stumbled across and made viral.”

Freese goes on: “I have become especially impatient by the two-step in which a breathless set of claims about findings is provided in a press release, but then the authors backtrack when talking to other scientists about how of course this is just one study and of course more work needs to be done. In particular, I have lost patience with the idea the media are to blame for extreme presentations of scientists’ work, when extreme presentations of the scientists’ work are distributed to the media by the scientists’ employers.”

I rest my case.

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California quaking, swearing off showers for science, overselling the microbiome, MERS update, tropical diseases, cats vs. dogs

Uplift and quaking

When will the next big earthquake hit California, something approximating the one south of the San Andreas fault in 1857 (7.9) or San Francisco in 1906 (7.8)? The forecasts say sometime in the next few decades. Michael Lemonick explains at the New Yorker blog Elements why the current California drought may hasten the day.

Lemonick is writing about a Nature paper arguing that the massive drawdown of California’s water to irrigate California’s farmlands may be causing microquakes, and that big earthquakes are often preceded by lots of little ones. Microquakes will not cause a major quake that would not otherwise have happened, Lemonick says.”But it might bring on the Big One a little bit sooner.”

San Francisco, 1906. Credit: Pillsbury Picture Co.

San Francisco, 1906. Credit: Pillsbury Picture Co.

No soap

It’s been a time of what evolutionary microbiologist Jonathan Eisen, blogging at Tree of Life, calls “overselling the microbiome.” The highest profile item was the New York Times piece by the reporter who went a month without showers, shampoo, or deodorant in order to test a new product, a spray containing an ammonia-oxidizing bug, Nitrosomonas eutropha, that was supposed to keep the bad smells away.

It seems to have mostly worked, although she hated her greasy hair, and who can blame her? I wrote about microbiome matters Tuesday at GLP, and most fascinating to me was Julia Scott’s report that her skin improved remarkably–softer, smoother, zits gone, smaller pores. Can’t help wondering if it might be possible to spray the face and get those benefits while still washing the hair, at least occasionally.

Paul Raeburn blogged about Scott’s piece Wednesday at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and found the idea somewhat icky. He may be right. I have a hunch we’ll find out before long whether microbes can make it as consumer products.



I won’t compare pimples to the horrifying Clostridium difficile, but they can make life pretty ghastly for adolescents. Now that receiving a transplant of another person’s bowel movement–uh, gut microbiome–is an acceptable and reportedly quite effective therapy for the very unpleasant, tough-to-eradicate, and potentially fatal C. diff infection, spraying a bit of bacteria-laden mist on the face a couple of times a day sounds not so bad.

Overselling the microbiome

As I pointed out Tuesday, Eisen has for years been bestowing awards for overselling the microbiome–complaining about hype and misleading news stories. Last week he posted an exceptional rant.

The topic was a paper describing the microbiome of the human placenta. The placenta seems to be populated not by microbes such as you might expect, for example ones similar to those in the vagina or the gut. No, several of the bugs that turned up are also to be found in the mouth. Note, though, that the paper explicitly said the placental organisms were not pathogens.

Nevertheless, nearly all the articles emphasized a point the lead researcher Kjersti Aagaard made in interviews: that the paper showed a connection between gum disease and unhealthy pregnancy, especially premature delivery. Which it did not.

Aagaard also emphasized the importance of dental hygiene. An excellent recommendation for many reasons, not least because replacing lost teeth is a painful surgical procedure, takes a long time, is often not entirely successful, and is stunningly expensive. Whether flossing can prevent premature birth, however, has yet to be demonstrated.

A tweet from science journalist Ed Yong saying “the oral hygiene msg seems hugely premature to me” prompted the Eisen post. Eisen was especially critical of news stories in Science and the New York Times, although several others (and their headlines) took a beating too.

Update on MERS: Never Mind

A couple weeks ago, on May 16, I did a blogging roundup on MERS, the new coronavirus disease centered in the Middle East. At that point there were two MERS cases in the US, both imported by health care providers who had worked in the Middle East.

On May 17, a third case was announced. This one was particularly scary because it looked as if the third patient, who had not traveled, had caught it from one of the others–even though MERS doesn’t seem to be hugely contagious.

Well, good news. The third so-called MERS case was a false alarm. To  date, no one has become infected in the US, the two imported cases have recovered, and there are now no American cases of MERS. Nothing to see here, move along. Details from Karen Kaplan at the LA Times’s blog Science Now.

If you want to catch up on MERS, though, my post here from May 16 has a lot of links. And if you’d like to know more about viruses, Vincent Racaniello has a post of interest at his Virology Blog. His Columbia virology course is going MOOC in August, and videos of each session are already posted on the course site, YouTube, and iTunes University. Seems like a terrific chance for a deep dive into virology for free and on your own schedule.

But we should mind the tropical diseases invading the US

At the Mermaid’s Tale, Anne Buchanan and Dan Parker call attention to a PLOS paper describing the “New American Underbelly of Tropical Diseases” among the Gulf Coast poor. Also chikungunya, a mosquito-borne infection expected to enter the US soon.

Chikungunya, whose main vector is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is spreading fast in the Caribbean. Credit: Science.

Chikungunya, whose main vector is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is spreading fast in the Caribbean. Credit: Science.

The post is a screed against neglect of certain diseases–the World Health Organization says there are 17 neglected tropical diseases–because they are diseases of the poor. Big Pharma, Buchanan and Parker say, is unlikely to invest in developing vaccines. Which is probably true. They also complain “the big research dollars go to sequencing viruses and parasites, generally neglecting the social aspects (like poverty) that lead to these conditions.”

I agree in principle that getting rid of disease by getting rid of poverty is a noble goal, but is it a more pragmatic one than genetic investigations of disease organisms? Or, to take a really practical example available right now, distribution of bed nets to keep out vectors? Were it even possible to redirect what’s spent on these things and put the money toward eliminating poverty, how much difference would these relatively small amounts make to the poor? Whereas research on disease organisms themselves is a proven strategy for dealing with disease.

Cat people vs. dog people

It’s irresistible, so I’m concluding with the report claiming that cat people are more intelligent than dog people. I openly acknowledge that this is not an actual paper, one that’s gone through peer review and been published in a respected journal. No, it’s just a poster by Denise Guastello, from Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who presented it at the annual Association for Psychological Science meeting just concluded in San Francisco. Between 2:30 and 3:30 last Saturday afternoon. Pacific Daylight Time.

The poster caught the eye of Live Science’s Rachael Rettner, which makes it legitimate fodder here. Rettner reported not only the “more intelligent” datum, but also that “People who said they were dog lovers in the study tended to be more lively — meaning they were more energetic and outgoing — and also tended to follow rules closely. Cat lovers, on the other hand, were more introverted, more open-minded and more sensitive than dog lovers. Cat people also tended to be non-conformists, preferring to be expedient rather than follow the rules.”

Guastello seems to think her findings grow out of the differing sanitation requirements of dogs and cats. “It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog,” Guastello said. “Whereas, if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you’re more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.” Or, I dunno, maybe she’s just talking about exercise.

I expect you’re curious about the study subjects. This was psychology research, so the demographic is easy enough to guess: the psych-obligatory college students. I wonder if they got extra credit.

cats in ur blog

It’s possible Guastello is familiar with a 2010 paper in the journal Anthrozoös reporting on personality differences between cat and dog people. “Results suggest that dog people are higher on Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, but lower on Neuroticism and Openness than are cat people.” A full-text PDF can be had through a Guardian post on cat people that mentions this paper.

The study was much larger than last Saturday’s, involving more than 4500 people. But, and this is a very big but, a huge but, they volunteered themselves through a web site.

I never get over being flabbergasted at investigators–psychology is rife with them–who seem to be able to get away with flagrant flouting of basic principles of research design.

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Inflationary Universe data in question, but cheer up, there are cures for aging

Has BICEP2 lost its muscle?

Data claiming support for the inflationary theory of the Universe’s beginnings were released at a much ballyhooed press conference in March. (Cosmic inflation is the idea that the Universe expanded spectacularly right after the infinitesimal point that was the Big Bang.)

When I wrote about the announcement here at the time, I said I was surprised at the wholehearted embrace of a report that was so clearly contingent, tentative, preliminary. With few exceptions, physicists and physics groupies were dancing in the streets, paying at best parenthetical lip service to the way science has to work if it is to be truly scientific: results are supposed to be confirmed before they are accepted as Revealed Truth. Especially results as world-shaking as these.

The claims were based on observations of cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang, observations made by the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole. (BICEP is the muscular acronym for the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization experiment.)  Well over 300 papers exploring the implications have appeared already, in just a couple of months, rushed into the arXiv e-print database.

We should know fairly soon, within the next year or two, whether what BICEP2 saw was the real thing. The first installment is expected in October, with release of data from Planck. Planck is the space observatory designed to study cosmic background radiation and operated by the European Space Agency. Last fall ESA declared “Mission accomplished!” and deactivated Planck, but analysis of its data goes on and on. Some teaser data were released May 12, which Kathryn Jepsen described at Symmetry.


The Dustup

Beginning last week, however, what physicist Sean Carroll called “Arrrgh Rumors” have been asking whether the BICEP2 results would come to literal dust. At his physics blog Résonaances on May 12, Adam Falkowski asked “Is BICEP wrong?” Noting that in March he had given the BICEP2 results only a 50-50 chance of being right, Falkowski reported that BICEP had wrongly interpreted data from Planck. “Once you correct for that and rescale the Planck results appropriately, some experts claim that the polarized galactic dust emission can account for most of the BICEP signal. The rumor is that the BICEP team has now admitted to the mistake.”

That rumor turned out to be wrong, or at least was roundly denied, according to Lisa Grossman in a May 13 piece at New Scientist.

On May 15, Carroll tweeted “Could the BICEP2 signal be dust, not CMB? Slides from Raphael Flauger suggesting yes” and linked to a public seminar by Princeton physicist Raphael Flauger (slides and video here.) Falkowski reported on the Flauger seminar on May 16. He acknowledged that the BICEP results might still turn out to be valid, but it was now up to the BICEP team to prove it.

The BICEP2 team used a map of the entire sky (left) to estimate the effect of galactic dust on their measurements. Princeton’s Raphael Flauger reconstructed the map from other sources and found the effects from dust may be much stronger (right) than the team had thought. The colors show the degree to which light from different parts of sky is polarized; red is stronger, blue is weaker.  Sky maps from Science News, May 21, 2014.   https://www.sciencenews.org/article/dustup-emerges-over-gravitational-waves-discovery

The BICEP2 team used a map of the entire sky (left) to estimate the effect of galactic dust on their measurements. Princeton’s Raphael Flauger reconstructed the map from other sources and found the effects from dust may be much stronger (right) than the team had thought. The colors show the degree to which light from different parts of sky is polarized; red is stronger, blue is weaker. Sky maps from Science News, May 21, 2014.

Christopher Crockett also described the Flauger analysis May 21 in a fine open-access piece at Science News that explains the rumor story so far. It’s also a clear summary of what the issues are. “This is not so much a squabble, but the discovery process in action,” he concludes.

An early skeptic was cosmologist Peter Coles, who blogs at In the Dark. He, too, analyzed the rumor and its aftermath, and observed, “I’m not particularly keen on the rumour-mongering that has gone on, but then I’m not very keen either on the way the BICEP2 result has been presented in some quarters as being beyond reasonable doubt when it clearly doesn’t have that status. Yet. Rational scepticism is a very good thing. It’s one of the things that makes science what it is. But it all too easily turns into mudslinging.”

Cosmologist Sesh Nadathurm, who blogs at Blank On The Map, dismissed this week’s events as “a minor kerfuffle.” Which it is not, as I explain below. While I think Nadathurm is wrong about the importance of the flap, the post is a clear explanation of the technical issues.


Why the BICEP2 rumor-mongering is not a minor kerfuffle

Here’s why this tale is neither minor nor kerfuffle. As Joel Achenbach declared at Achenblog, “Cosmic inflation had been discussed for more than three decades, but this would be the first strong evidence for it.” Michael Lemonick points out in a May 21 SciAm post, “the BICEP2 results are crucial to verifying inflation, a cornerstone of modern cosmology.”

The rumor about BICEP2 results may have been denied, but it has prompted several physicists to go public with objections they say they have harbored since the findings were released in March. Lemonick rounds up some of these objections and says several physicists have not been able to replicate the BICEP2 calculations. (A BICEP2 paper was posted publicly in March but has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, nor have the original data been released.)

Flauger told Ron Cowen at Nature News that he still hopes a signal will be confirmed. “I’m not trying to pick a fight; this is how science works, that someone presents a result and someone else checks that. But it doesn’t usually happen in public like this.


Young blood reverses aging

How the Universe began is arguably the most important story ever, but for nearly everyone except people who work in astrophysics and those of us who write about it, probably some religious folks too, it’s a topic with no impact on daily life.

This week, however, came science news of interest to pretty much everyone: experiments showing that there’s something in our blood that can reverse aging. Well, not our blood. Mouse blood. But the assumption is that if mice have it, we probably do too. And you can bet the pharmas are trying to concoct a patentable version of whatever it is as we speak.

Credit: National Institutes of Health

Credit: National Institutes of Health


Looks to me as if we need to take seriously these three new papers. These studies are not quack science, and they don’t seem to have been seriously misinterpreted by journalists who failed to understand the work or are trying to grab headlines. Nor is their reception a case of BICEP-like premature enthusiasm for preliminary results. The three are in peer-reviewed journals and are reporting on the latest results from long-term projects.


GDF11: the magic bullet against aging?

Two papers in Science report on recent findings from long-running investigations of what happens when the circulatory systems of young mice and old mice are joined in a somewhat creepy process called parabiosis. Old mice seem to benefit from substances in the young blood, one of which is a protein, GDF11. Doses of the protein alone rejuvenate heart and skeletal muscle and improve brain function: in this case olfaction, a huge part of mouse life.

At Ars Technica, John Timmer says the work implies that brain aging is not intrinsic to neurons but rather is a product of interaction with the environment and therefore might be modified. I expect the line of human volunteers eager to ingest just about anything has formed already.

At In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe says, “You might need a lot of protein, though, and there’s no telling how often you’d need infusions of it, but to roll back aging people would presumably put up with quite a bit of inconvenience.” Lowe thinks it’s likely there might be molecular targets in the GDF11 pathways, which is where the pharmas come in. The speculation is that rejuvenation is due to increased proliferation of stem cells. Lowe notes that up to now GDF11 has been believed to prevent formation of new brain cells, which shows how little is known about it.

At Mindblog, Deric Bownds cautions against profligate shooting up with GDF11. He warns, “waking up too many stem cells to start multiplying might increase the incidence of cancer.”


Young blood serum infusions help the aging brain

The third paper, in Nature, ís in some ways even more intriguing because it shows beneficial brain effects on elderly mice from injections of blood serum from young mice. This, too, is likely to be put into practice with humans immediately. Indeed, the researchers have set up a company to begin clinical trials.

Lowe points out that blood plasma is infused thousands of times daily in every medical center in the country. He wonders what effect this work will have on “the current model of blood donation and banking, if it turns out that plasma from an 18-year-old is worth a great deal more than plasma from a fifty-year-old. I hope that the folks at the Red Cross are keeping up with the literature.”

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins proudly blogs a detailed account of all three papers. All this work, it turns out, has been funded by we ourselves, the US taxpayers. Do you suppose small-government commentators and Congresspersons will have the nerve to argue that it’s a waste of public money? Can opposing a cure for aging possibly be good politics?

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Female vs. male research, vaginas, elderly sperm, Nate Silver’s 538, MERS, racial genetics

Sex roundup: Affirmative action in animal research

My list of potential topics is heavy with sex this week. First–and possibly most far-reaching–the National Institutes of Health is coming to grips with the fact that males and females are . . . different. They react differently to drugs, for instance. And that means that research results from one are not necessarily trustworthy for both.

To be fair, let us note that NIH changed the rules to even up the sex ratio in human research some years ago. Today the agency brags that more than half of research participants in human studies are female.

Until now, though, that affirmative action has not applied to studies with lab animals.  It’s possible that decades worth of animal research has been skewed by the fact that female lab animals have been routinely eliminated from research. One reason given: their raging hormones make interpreting results messy. See Susannah Locke’s post at Vox explaining the kinds of problems the present system has created.

Credit: Rob Young

Credit: Rob Young

The agency is writing new animal research guidelines for NIH-funded researchers; they will be released in phases beginning late this year. Researchers will be required to include both sexes in their animal experiments, and to include them in large enough numbers to detect sex differences in the results. Grant reviewers will be instructed to take lab animal sex balance into consideration when considering a proposal. Those who work with cells will be encouraged to use both kinds too, but the rules for cells seem a little more, um, flexible.

Even some researchers who thoroughly approve of organizing a piece of research so that it’s possible to sort out any effects that differ by sex have been made gloomy by this announcement. As Drug Monkey explains, it will increase research costs, and by more than just doubling the costs.

“Let me be clear, I want to do sex-differences studies. I am delighted that this will be a new prescription. I agree with the motivating sentiments. . . What it takes is additional grant funding. Or tolerance on the part of P&T committees, hiring committees and grant review panels for apparently reduced progress on a scientific topic of interest.”

Sex roundup: Researchers have been ignoring vaginas, too

Turns out that female reproductive machinery has been excluded from research along with female lab animals and female cells. Researchers from Europe and Australia report in PLOS Biology that they looked at 25 years’ worth of studies on the evolution of genitals–an increasingly hot topic–and found that just under half, 49%, report on male genitalia only. (44% studied genitalia of both sexes and 8% females only.)

Like the objection to disproportional attention to males in lab animal research, this is a complaint that has nothing at all to do with sexual politics. It’s about how to design studies that don’t skew results and lead to false conclusions.

Some of this may be, if not exactly sexual politics, a hangover from previous centuries: the idea that females are passive recipients of male sexual attention, with few genital features to excite research interest. But a big part of this neglect is because female genitalia are a lot more difficult to study. Male apparatus is usually out there for all to see; female genitalia are more often internal. Elizabeth Gibney reports at the Nature Newsblog that the data support this idea. Female creatures with external genitalia–spiders, for example–are not nearly as neglected by researchers.

At Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong agrees. A tube, he says, is easier to study than a cavity. But he also thinks old-fashioned (and erroneous) ideas about female passivity during sex linger and divert research attention. He’s got lots of fascinating details from animals to show that females often control, for instance, the ease of mating (in ducks) and the choice of male sperm (in earwigs.)

Sex roundup: Risky older fathers, another flub from Nate Silver’s 538

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn takes issue with a piece at Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com asserting that tales of birth defects, autism, and other psychiatric and behavior disorders associated with older fathers are overblown. He argues that the piece entirely ignores a crucial paper, a 2012 study from deCODE Genetics showing that the older they get, the more likely men are to pass mutations on to their children.

The 538 piece is by Emily Oster, who at the moment is looking like the only member of the 3-person 538 science staff who’s writing regularly. Most of the work so far posted in the 538 science section is from outsiders, not all of them writers.

Oster is an economist at the University of Chicago, but has been producing a weekly piece of science writing in debunkery mode. I wrote about Nate Silver’s new 538 in March, and my post was partly about another Oster piece. This was a contrarian take on whether acetominophen during pregnancy has long-term consequences for children. I liked some of what she said, especially her emphasis on how science writers so routinely give readers misleading impressions of a study by reporting relative risk figures instead of absolute numbers. But, given the small amount of data she analyzed, I thought the piece was waaaay too long.

The paternal age piece is also quite long, but at least Oster does additional analysis of the data she considers. Which is good, because data is supposed to be what 538 is about. OTOH, not good if she’s leaving out essential data such as the deCODE paper Raeburn describes.

Emerging MERS

As I write, there are now two confirmed US cases of MERS, the new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, which has been fatal in somewhere between a quarter and a third of cases. Both US cases are imports, unrelated to each other, one diagnosed in Indiana and the other in Florida. Both occurred in healthcare workers traveling here from Saudi Arabia, which has been the chief locale of MERS cases.

The disease is not hugely contagious; it appears to require sustained close contact, as with hospital workers or family members caring for a sick relative. The World Health Organization has issued official reassurance: this is not a global public health emergency. Or at least not yet. Find this news in several places, including Physician’s First Watch (from the New England Journal of Medicine). First Watch is also making its archive of MERS articles, a couple of dozen at this point, available free here.

Find exhaustive detail as of last Tuesday at the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Health authorities expect more imported cases of MERS. Jason Beaubien reports at Shots that American hospitals are taking steps to recognize MERS early and keep it from spreading.

Where the virus comes from and how it infects people are uncertain. Its primary source is thought to be the Egyptian tomb bat, an appropriately sepulchral name. I haven’t been able to find out why this animal’s common name is tomb bat. But reportedly it likes to nest in stone structures, so maybe that’s it. It’s a fruit bat, like the bat reservoir for another scary coronavirus, SARS.

The Egyptian tomb bat. Credit: Jakob Fahr, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)

The Egyptian tomb bat. Credit: Jakob Fahr, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)

The virus has spread to camels, now suspected of being its intermediate host. A Lancet paper from last fall found antibodies to the virus in some camel populations but not others. The virus itself has been recovered from the noses of Saudi Arabian dromedary camels. (That’s the one-hump kind.)

Laurie Garrett, a long-time and highly decorated science writer who specializes in infectious disease, tells us at Foreign Policy that the geographic range of infected camels “perfectly overlaps the North African terrain of Egyptian tomb bats.” This could mean, she speculates, that sporadic human MERS disease may have occurred in the Middle East, unrecognized, for centuries.

Some MERS patients had contact with camel meat or milk before they fell ill, but camels appear to be involved in only a small number of MERS cases. Which means, Garrett says, “the vast majority of MERS cases seem to have been acquired by other means.”

For a thorough overview of the MERS story so far, see Judy Stone’s post at her SciAm blog Molecules to Medicine. She and Laurie Garrett both delve into the politics of MERS. The Saudi Arabian authorities in particular are tight-fisted with information. A  scientist there was fired for sending a saliva sample to the Netherlands for analysis.

The genetics of race

Science writer Nicholas Wade, late of the New York Times, has a new book out about the genetics of racial classification. Race, it argues, is not a social construct; races are genetically real and it’s time we learned to live with that fact. I reviewed the book this week at the Genetic Literacy Project. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History is impressively researched and will tell you things you didn’t know even if you know a lot.

race Wade bk

My chief complaint is that, although Wade pays lip service to the reality that nongenetic factors loom large in human evolution and human development and human life, sometimes he doesn’t seem to believe it. That’s particularly evident in Chapter 7, where he endorses the work of economic historian Gregory Clark.

Clark argues that Brits underwent something of a personality change between 1200 and 1800 because the rich reproduced more than the poor. This resulted in reduced interpersonal aggression and national embrace of virtues like thrift and the work ethic.

Wade believes this was due to the genes of the rich. He produces no evidence for these behavioral genetics influences, however. He simply asserts them, a bad move for a science writer. Given what we know at the moment about these virtuous genes, which is nothing, it’s just as plausible that these changes were shaped by parental habits and cultural inculcation. More detail, and more argument (about this and other evolutionary topics), in my review.

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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. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/scientific-american-editor-fox-news-climate-change

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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