Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stimulating Science - Science Funding in the $787 Billion Economic Stimulus Bill

Science actually came out with a significant increase in new funding as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress this week and expected to be signed by President Obama early next week. Key provisions related to science include:

National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH will get an additional $10 billion spread over two years, ironically, in large part due to lobbying by Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who as one of only three Republican Senators to vote for the bill had a bit of influence. Specter is a cancer survivor.

Department of Energy Office of Science: The Energy Department will get $1.6 billion for its office of science, which funds research in areas such as biofuels, nuclear physics, fusion energy, high-energy physics, and also climate change, which is expected to become a priority issue for the new administration as well as Secretary Chu.

National Science Foundation (NSF): NSF is the largest government funder of basic research in science and engineering, and will get an additonal $3 billion to provide in grants. ResearchAmerica, an advocacy group, has said the money could create up to 70,000 jobs, many in laboratories at college campuses.

NASA: The space agency received just over $2 billion, with $400 million to be used for its Earth science climate research missions, as well as to increase its supercomputing abilities.

High-speed and inner-city rail: The final version of the bill included $8 billion for improvements in railway capacity and existing infrastructure, key facets of a sustainable future. Another $6.9 billion is alloacated to improve and maintain public transit. On top of that, Amtrak received $1.3 billion for its operations, though there is a stipulation that no more than 60 percent can go to the Northeast Corridor (essentially Washington DC to Boston).

Friday, February 13, 2009

Russia, The Arctic, and the New Oil Rush - Global Warming Opens Up New Cold War

It seems thar's oil in that there ice. And also gas. And Russia wants it.

News reports indicate that Russia is working hard to stake a claim in the Arctic seabed. One of its most famous polar scientists, Artur Chilingarov, noted in a recent news conference "the Arctic has a special geopolitical importance for Russia." It also, apparently, may contain as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. So Russia is planning to build a new Arctic research ship to add to its existing icebreaker fleet and allow it to better exploit these energy resources. Already, in 2007, they conducted an expedition in which Russian mini-submarines "planted the Russian flag" (actually, a capsule containing the Russian flag) on the Arctic seabed. In time, according to Chilingarov, the goal for the Arctic is "expanding the Russian presence there, intensifying research and rebuilding a network of polar stations."

But the real controversy is Russia's plan to send about 50 polar scientists to Spitsbergen, an island to which Norway claims exclusive rights. It seems Russia, the United States, Canada and other northern countries are all in a race to assert jurisdiction over the Arctic, whose oil, gas and minerals until recently have been considered too difficult to recover. However, there is growing evidence that global warming is shrinking polar ice, opening up new shipping lanes and thus new resource development possibilities.

In 2001, Russia submitted a claim to the United Nations that an underwater mountain range crossing the polar region is part of Russia's continental shelf. The UN rejected that claim for lack of evidence. But Russia seems intent on establishing both a scientific and military presence in the Arctic as the major powers all seek to lay claim to its newly lucrative energy reserves.

"We aren't going to wage a new Cold War in the Arctic," Chilingarov said, though he also added that "Russia will look to protect its interests."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin and Lincoln - Science and Politics

Today marks the 200th birthdays of two incredibly influential men in history. Charles Darwin, the man who used science to give a more rational answer to the origin of life than `divine creation', the celebration has taken on a new meaning. The concept of evolution has become ingrained in our understanding of the world. And yet, to this day there are many who seek to interject the idea of creationism, or the versions into which it has evolved, "creation science" or "intelligent design" into science class (and yes, the pun is intended).

Interestingly, the idea of "evolution" has crept into virtually every aspect of modern life. There are the obvious connections, like genetics, in which we essentially speed up evolution (or perhaps create our own version of evolution) through genetic engineering in pharmaceuticals, crops, and other applications. But evolution is understood as we talk about first and second (and third) generation innovations, where first generations are often unwieldy and later generations are more user friendly. Think iPhones, iPods, computers, and everything from communication to transportation. Essentially, Darwin changed forever the way scientists, ecologists, sociologists and political thinkers view the world.

Abraham Lincoln, who also would have turned 200 today, was another thinker who made his mark on the US and the world. As the first of his new political party to become President, Lincoln presided over both the splitting, and the reunification, of the United States. The additional powers that he brought to the federal level set the stage for many of the national regulations that we have today. By keeping the United States united, he positioned us to grow into a leader of the free world, and perhaps the entire world. Of course, what we do with that power and leadership is another matter.

Lincoln's influence stretches forward through many President's hence, and takes on special significance in the current administration. Besides being elected from Lincoln's adopted home state, President Obama clearly was influenced by Lincoln's history and Lincoln's struggles. Obama admitted to reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, about Lincoln's ability to pull together his archest rivals for the presidency, all to lead the country through its most troubling period. Even the Lincoln bible was used in the swearing in ceremony for the new president.

Born on the same day in very different parts of the world, Darwin and Lincoln never met, and perhaps never even knew about each other. Darwin spent five years traveling the world on The Beagle and eventually defined how we think about life. Lincoln spent four years staying pretty much in Washington DC and eventually came to define how we think of leadership.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Our Stolen Informed Future - A New Database of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

The organization run by Dr. Theo Colburn, famous for her book "Our Stolen Future" has launched a new web page called "Critical Windows of Development." The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) is sponsoring the site, which provides a interactive bar graph that allows the user to track stages of fetal development versus scientific studies that show the endocrine (hormone) disrupting effects of three major chemicals - bisphenol-A (sometimes known as BPA), phthalates and dioxin - in rats and mice. Needless to say, these three chemicals have been the subject of quite a bit of controversy and many advocacy groups are seeking to have them banned or regulated severely.

The first two are commonly used in plastics and so have widespread use in consumer goods, which is part of the concern. Some studies suggest both BPA and phthalates can affect critical stages of fetal and young children's development even at very low exposures. The third chemical, dioxin, is not actually commercialized but rather a common by-product of combustion.

In her statement at the web site launch, TEDX president Theo Colburn notes “The unprecedented global increases in endocrine-related disorders such as autism, other learning and developmental disabilities, reproductive problems, diabetes, obesity, thyroid problems, breast, prostate, and testicular cancer and more, signal the need for a crash program in ‘inner-space’ research...The roles of contaminants in the womb must be addressed before it is too late.”

According to Colburn, the site will expand from the initial three chemicals. TEDX expects to add bioaccumulative polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants and the pesticide DDT by the end of this year.

The site represents a growing trend - online publishing of databases that contain the summary results of many studies over many years. This follows on the heels of the High Production Volume (HPV) Chemical databases that have resulted from the voluntary HPV Challenges in the US, Europe and Japan. The new REACH law in Europe will also put data on the web, as will the new US Chemical Assessment and Management Program (ChAMP).

Monday, February 9, 2009

When Scientists Go Bad - The Ramifications of Ethical Lapses

A doctor in the UK "changed and misreported results" in his research, "creating the appearance of a possible link" between the MMR vaccine and autism, according to an investigation by The Sunday Times . In 1998 the results are published in a well-respected medical journal, The Lancet. After publication the rates of MMR (Mumps Measles, Rubella) inoculation fall from 92% to below 80%. And last week official figures show that 1,348 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales were reported last year, compared to only 56 in 1998. Two children have died from the disease.

Scientific integrity is occasionally called into question, and cases like this, while rare, can make the public reconsider the trust they put in us. In this particular case, the data published in the Lancet did not reflect the actual data collected during the research. According to the Times investigation, there were clear cases of data being manipulated to create false conclusions. Worse, there appears to be significant conflicts of interest and litigation bias that influenced the findings. None of these conflicts were reported by the doctor. And the fraudulent data led to a mass scare and distrust of the MMR vaccine, leading to the very epidemic that many years of the vaccine's use had held off. Fear of the cure caused the disease to rise for not only the individuals refusing the vaccine but the population as a whole since the diseases are so contagious.

Cases like this demonstrate why scientific fraud is rare. True, the peer-review process of journal publication missed this one, largely because the data presented were not the data collected. Without external review of the original files, it is hard to determine that someone has "fixed" the numbers. But another tenet of science, repeatability, helped flush out the deceit. Other scientists attempting to replicate the findings were not able to reach similar results. Samples that were reported to show signs of disease were reanalyzed at other laboratories and found to show no signs of those diseases at all. Digging into the raw data, which by law is kept confidential, especially when it involves children as did this study, was made possible by permission given by the parents for outside review.

In the end, the ramifications of deceit can be catastrophic. Which is why scientists work so hard to keep high ethical standards. But while that is true as a group, sometimes individual scientists lose their way.

Click here and here for a full account of the Sunday Times investigation. For a timeline of key dates in the crisis, click here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Funding Science - From Whence the Money Comes?

Science is expensive. And basic science in particular has no immediate connection to making a profit. So where do scientists get the money needed to pay for laboratory equipment, research vessels, online surveys, attendance at scientific meetings, page costs, and even the occasional ramen noodle brick cooked over a bunsen burner in those late night sessions staring at a gas chromatograph? Does the source of the funds matter? All very interesting questions for scientists and funding agencies alike.

There are a variety of possible sources of science funding, depending on whether the money is for basic research (e.g., pure science) or applied research (e.g., finding a cure for pancreatic cancer).
  • Government: Government used to be the biggest source of funding for science. But whereas 40 years ago the federal government financed more than 60% of all Research & Development in the United States, that trend has been reversed where now about 65% of R&D is being funded by private interests. The main source of government funds is the National Science Foundation, which provides almost a quarter of the funding to academics for basic research. When it comes to applied medical research, the National Institutes for Health takes over that role.

  • Industry: Industry provides much of the funding for applied scientific research, where the research is targeted at find practical (and profitable) uses of the basic scientific knowledge that has been gained.

  • Military/NASA: Quite a bit of applied scientific funding has come out of military applications and space exploration. Technically this is government, but its specialized nature warrants its own category.

  • Foundations: Private foundations are a good source of funds for both basic and applied science. Two examples are the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation ("advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances") and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ("combat disease, hunger and poverty in developing countries").

  • Professional Organizations: Some scientific organizations provide funding to its members. These include the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society's Grants-in-Aid of Research (GIAR) program, the Society for Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology, and others.

  • Advocacy Groups: To some extent, environmental and health advocacy groups may provide funds for analysis of scientific research, though largely they obtain their own funding from the sources above.

  • Self-Funding: The age of the "gentleman scientist" and the "science benefactors" are sadly long gone, but those scientists who have become financially independent are free to study science without hindrance.

Whether the source of funding influences the science is the subject for a future post.