Stealth Science and Technology Content on The Colbert Report…Again

Regular readers know I usually can’t keep up with all the late night television content I write about in these posts as they air.  If there’s stuff in the non-interview segments, or science and technology content with guests that you wouldn’t expect it from, I won’t always know about it until later.

The latest such entry is the March 13, 2012 edition of The Colbert Report.  While the guest was musician Andrew Bird, at least part of the interview covered teratomas, a class of tumors that copy specific tissues in the body (teeth are a frequent case) and attack the original tissue.  Colbert, perhaps consistent with his character, assumed the reference was more literal than Bird intended it – as a kind of feedback loop.

But that wasn’t the only instance of science and technology content from this episode.  In a segment on the Republican campaign, Colbert cited remarks from Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich on science and technology issues (climate change and alternative fuels) as examples of the campaign keeping it simple.  To start it all off, Colbert noted in his Threatdown segment that bears continue to be the top threat, now because of their apparent facility with tools.

Could the H5N1 Papers Be a Canary In the Coal Mine?

Edited March 31According to NPR, both Science and Nature are working to publish the research in full in the next few months.

Original Post – March 30

Earlier today the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity announced that it recommends that the government allow two papers be published on modifications to the H5N1 avian flu virus.  This reflects a reconsideration by the Board, which had recommended in December that the authors of each study withhold certain information before they were published.  (The Board is involved because both studied involved National Institutes of Health funding.)  This runs counter to a recommendation from a World Health Organization panel that the papers be published without editing.

This apparent reversal comes one day after the Board issued a policy on ‘dual-use’ biological research.  By dual-use research the policy means research that

“can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment, materiel, or national security.”

If a department has identified research it funds as fitting the dual-use definition, it must conduct a risk assessment and formulate a risk mitigation plan to address the results of the assessment.  This plan could include modification of the mode and/or venue for communicating the research.  If that does not effectively mitigate the risk, redacting the publication is an option.

While some press accounts claim the Board’s decision is a reversal of its December recommendations, the manuscripts of each study were revised.  The Board recommended that one of the studies (in press at Nature) could be published, but on a split vote, recommended that only the data, methods and conclusions of the other study be published.  It is currently in press at Science.

So we have, in a fashion, seen these papers used as the first tests of the new policy.  I don’t mean to suggest that managing research with dual-use implications is new.  Far from it.  But we do seem to be seeing such management being applied to a field that is not yet used to it.

The Board’s recommendations will go to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, who would make the official recommendation, if she so chooses.  Whether the journal editors would accept the new recommendations should become clear in the next few days.  How the scientific community will respond to encouraged self-censorship versus insisted redaction from the U.S. government is unclear to me.

Mooney Keeps Asking the Wrong Question About Politics and Science

If I could figure out a way to effectively ignore Mr. Mooney, I would, and I’d also distribute it widely and freely.  The latest irritation from the junior polemicist came earlier today.

My takeaway from the cited study – at least where Mooney’s perennial fulminations are concerned – is that the only groups for which trust in science has declined between 1974 and 2010 are conservatives and church goers.  (There are, I think, many other interesting things to delve into in this study, but I’m pretty convinced they won’t get much attention, unless I try and generate some.)

Besides reminding us that he has a book coming out that will (his protestations to the contrary aside) further develop science as a political wedge issue, Mr. Mooney continues to demonstrate jumps in reasoning that make him so damn irritating (boldface mine).

“Conservatives becoming more factually wrong—or, in this case, more distrusting of science, which to me is basically the same thing—as their level of education advances.”

And he provides what I think is the wrong question to emphasize (italics his). Continue reading

Late Night Guest Audible – Maria Goodavage and the Soldier Dogs

The Daily Show had a last minute guest change for its Tuesday night program.  Maria Goodavage came on instead, and discussed her book Soldier Dogs.  Goodavage is a fomer USA Today reporter, and writes about dogs at Dogster.com.  Solider Dogs focuses on the various roles dogs play in the American war efforts overseas.  Besides the dogs’ work on the ground (one was involved in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden), Goodavage covers their training, as well as the biology behind how they can do what they do, and the trauma (including post-traumatic stress disorder) they can suffer during their service.

The full episode is available online for a few weeks, and you can watch the interview by itself.  Stewart loves him some dogs, so he manages to balance the often serious nature of the interview with some humor.  Check out the book’s website for an excerpt, photos, and videos chronicling this under-reported aspect of military service.

Biomedical Update Tuesday: Myriad, Medical Isotopes, and Contraception

Some quick notes on three items that have graced these pages before.

Medical Tests – In light of its decision in Mayo v. Prometheus, the Supreme Court has remanded, or returned, the Myriad Genetics case to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit for a re-hearing (H/T Bioephemera).  It will be a few weeks or more before a schedule for the new appellate hearing becomes clear.  The case may or may not end at that hearing, depending on the content of the decision.

Medical Isotopes – Shifting from medical tests to medical isotopes, the United States, along with three other countries, has announced a quadrilateral agreement concerning the production of medical isotopes.  As part of the nuclear summit currently happening in South Korea, the U.S., France, the Netherlands, and Belgium have entered an agreement to ensure a reliable supply of medical isotopes like technetium-99.  An important part of this agreement is minimizing the use of highly-enriched uranium for the production of those isotopes.

A very brief summary of the agreement is that the countries have committed to shifting production facilities away from highly-enriched uranium, with the U.S. guaranteeing supplies of the material during the transition period.  With legislation in the U.S. Congress going nowhere fast, such action by the Executive Branch (specifically the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration) allows the nation to continue working on the production challenges highlighted by the Chalk River production facility shutdown in 2009.

Contraception – No, this does not concern the latest hullabaloo over insurance coverage in the U.S.  But this article from the Knight Science Journalism Tracker caught my interest because it suggested a repeat of the Obama Administration’s supposed scientific arguments from late last year against extending the over-the-counter availability of Plan B One Step to women under 17.  In this case, the situation seems to be repeating itself in Spain.  The Ministry of Health claims that only scientific criteria will guide its decision, but it seems to make a logical leap from ‘inconclusive’ studies to claiming that the emergency contraceptive pill “can damage women’s health.”  The article author, Pere Estupinyà, properly notes that Spanish media coverage is too narrowly focused on this scientific question (as seemed to be the case in the U.S.).

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of March 26

March has not been kind on science and technology guests for late night.  Things continue this week, in part because reliable guest source Craig Ferguson is running repeats.  Only a couple of people worth noting.

Tonight, Dr. David Page visits The Colbert Report.  He’s the director of the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his research focuses on sex chromosomes.  On Wednesday, Mayim Bialik, currently seen on The Big Bang Theory, is a guest on Conan.  Bialik has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and plays a neurobiologist on the show.

Also on Wednesday is the appearance of former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed.  A documentary on his term of office (which was marked by several challenges, including his forced resignation by coup this February) is currently making the rounds, and President Nasheed will be on with David Letterman.  I mention this here because Nasheed was very focused on climate change during his term, and that is a topic of some interest to Letterman.  No guarantee it will come up, but I can’t eliminate the possibility.

ScienceDebate 2012: Apparently It Learned Nothing From 2008

I wasn’t a big fan of the effort to get a science debate for the presidential campaign in 2008, in part because I consider U.S. presidential debates pretty worthless vehicles for discussing policy.  The only tangible outcome that I could connect to a ‘debate’ was getting the two campaigns to answer a list of questions, something most major advocacy groups can get without a lot of effort.

It hasn’t stopped the organizers from trying again.  They haven’t bothered with the Republican primary campaign, but still talk as though they will try and get a science debate between President Obama and whomever grabs the Republican nomination.  However, the dates of the presidential debates were selected a long time ago.  I don’t think it unreasonable for a group legitimately interested in a science debate to try and work through the existing system – or advocate to change it – in order to achieve its goals.  That ScienceDebate is apparently unable or unwilling to deal with the major factor preventing their goal puts the heat to my cynicism.  Since the top questions suggested for the debate mostly target the culture wars or science funding, it’s perhaps better that this project fail again.

Technology (Or The Absence Of It) In The Movies

The movie based on The Hunger Games was released yesterday in the U.S.  The dystopian story is set in a post-apocalytpic future North America.  In this future (as described in this piece by Jeremy Hsu) certain technologies we take for granted aren’t present.  While the Hsu analysis focuses on faulty linkages between technology and progress, I want to make the point that technology is as culturally defined as it is defined by physical and resource constraints.  Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean that we will always be able to do that thing.   For instance, we lack the capability to launch humans to the moon, though forty years ago it was something we did several times.

Another recent movie that can illustrate that point is Hugo, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Hugo is pretty thick with technological themes and concerns, both in front of and behind the camera.  There’s the use of 3-D film technology, the emphasis on train transportation via coal, the operation of mechanical clocks and other devices, and the emergence of film as a new medium. Of those things, its the mechanics of the film that compare to the missing Internet and other ‘forgotten’ technologies from The Hunger Games.

In Hugo the demonstration of what could be done via mechanical means is not just a symbol of the period (1930s Paris), but a sign of what we used to be able to do.  While there have been myriad benefits from the shift from mechanical to electrical/electronic (fill in the blank), the moves forward were not without consequence.  In learning new technologies we often lose old technological knowledge.  This is rarely intentional, but often a side effect of the increased benefits from doing things the ‘old way’.

At the very least, this kind of thinking might help you enjoy some movies a little bit more.

The National Academies Will Revisit Responsible Science

Along with its countless studies on various scientific questions that can help inform policy, The National Academies‘ various units address scientific conduct from time to time.  Most recently they issued a third edition of On Being a Scientist, which addresses ethical and other professional research conduct from the perspective of the individual scientist.  Other reports have focused on specific aspects of research conduct, from human subjects protection to research data.

One report that was overdue for a revisit is Responsible Science, a two volume report issued in 1992-3.  While some overlap with On Being a Scientist is unavoidable, Responsible Science is more focused on processes, procedures and institutions.  The collection of papers and policies on ethical conduct in Volume 2 is a useful resource, one I hope research agencies took advantage of when developing their scientific integrity policies (though I suspect that happened in the rarest of instances).  The 1992 report

Earlier this week a study committee met at the National Academies to start work on a revision of Responsible Research.  The public session was relatively straightforward for an Academies study (I worked at the Academies in the first half of the last decade).  Study sponsors (Office of Research Integrity at the Health and Human Services Department, the Energy Department’s Office of Science, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, The U.S. Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Science Foundation Office of the Inspector General).  The study is charged with addressing the following questions (an expanded list of the questions addressed in the 1992 report):

Continue reading

An Immodest Proposal – It Might Make Sense to Ditch Patent Protection

Via Futurity comes this press release from the University of Buffalo on a forthcoming study.  That study, led by one of the economics faculty, Gilad Sorek, suggests that there may be benefits to firms that give up the patent protection on their innovations.  The study is forthcoming in Economics Letters.

The study looks at instances where companies gave up patent protection in an effort to attract competitors.  In these circumstances, the companies giving up protection are trying to generate additional interest in improving the product.  The company may lack the internal resources for additional R&D, or the particular product or service stimulates a lot of complementary products.  By letting the companies that develop the complementary product a peek inside the underlying item, the company giving up protection may lose some market share, but they anticipated additional sales/interest because competitors were making new/additional improvements to their value-added products.  In turn, this increases the value of the initial innovation.

Since the study is not yet released, this is more than a little speculative.  But this phenomenon strikes me as comparable to the small user-centered innovation communities (like experimental airplanes), where manufacturers benefit from allowing their customers to tinker with the product.  An importance difference here is that there aren’t really complementary products or services involved, just ways to improve and/or specialize the initial product that the manufacturer couldn’t think of on its own, or couldn’t produce for issues of economics and/or scale.

I think this helps demonstrate the increasing inability of rigid intellectual property regimes to effectively support and encourage innovation.  This is perhaps more obvious in the creative industries, where increasing lengths of copyright protection have made certain cultural forms effectively to expensive to attempt any more.

Sorek notes that the work is theoretical, but I’m not sure that empirically confirming the benefits of the practice will add so much more to the relevant policy conversations.  In an era where the trend in many sectors is toward expanding and standardizing intellectual property rights, simply suggesting the value in flexibility could trigger political blowback.  While there is a gradual expansion and acceptance of flexible copyright protection, a Creative Commons license or an open source ethos around manufacturing is likely harder to encourage.  (Unless I’m missing something.)