Parade Magazine Does Bad NIH Math

I really shouldn’t expect hard-hitting journalism in the Sunday magazines, but misleading or inaccurate information in any publication that deals with science and technology issues will get my attention.

In the copy of Parade Magazine that accompanied many Sunday newspapers, the cover article addressed biomedical research.  It’s a real straightforward piece, framed by a cancer survivor’s story, that describes what the National Institutes of Health does, and some of the knowledge gained from research it supports.  Great, nice to get the good word out.  It even highlights the struggles of researchers that have to work harder to get grants.

The problem is in this section:

“After doubling from 1998 to 2003, the amount of money Congress appropriated to the NIH in effect fell by almost 20% in the last five years.”

A drop of one fifth is significant.  However, you can look at these numbers from the NIH website and see the problem – if the quoted material is true, it can’t be in terms of dollars.  It must be taking inflation into account (also known as measuring in real or constant dollars).  AAAS analysis suggests that’s not the case; through the FY 2009 request, the NIH budget was in real terms four percent lower than the FY 2004 budget, and thirteen percent lower than the FY 2004 budget if you accounted for biomedical research inflation.  That’s not twenty percent, and given the boosts to the NIH from the stimulus, I wouldn’t expect those inflationary decreases to increase going to the FY 2010 budget.  The author and Parade should have explained their numbers better.

Also in that article is an interesting nugget from Senator Arlen Specter.

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Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of August 31

All the big shows are back, except for the Comedy Central hour of power, which is not even in reruns, but pre-empted the next two weeks.  John Holdren’s scheduled appearance on Wednesday’s Late Show is the only science and technology guest of note this week, barring late additions to the schedule (for instance, The Tonight Show currently lists only one guest each for Wednesday and Friday).

Unlike the Peacock, the Eye network is a bit slow getting late night video up on its official website or YouTube channel, so those wishing to see this should stay up Wednesday or warm up the recording device of their choice.

SEED Botches the H1N1 Report Coverage As Well

On Friday I piled on to the reports of various news outlets mischaracterizing the plausible scenario of the government’s H1N1 report as a prediction.  I missed one, and it’s from an outfit that ought to know better – SEED Magazine.  In it’s online round-up of the week that was, they write:

“The extra-strength version has been mined for the requisite scary numbers: PCAST predicts that up to 50 percent of the US population could be infected, and up to 90,000 people could die, from the H1N1 strain (the Centers for Disease Control have since distanced themselves from these numbers). But in any case, the real danger is that millions of symptomatic people will, fearing the worst, rush off to emergency rooms, overburdening hospitals and diverting care away from people with more serious ailments.”

The second part of this excerpt is completely on point, and worth preparing for.  But to claim that PCAST predicts the numbers that SEED sites does not reflect a careful reading of the report.  For a magazine, and media empire, that aspires to be the place for people to stop for science news and analysis, this is a particularly egregious screw-up.  I’ve not seen a similar faux pas from the other science magazines.

In case you’re not convinced, here’s the relevant text from Page vii of the report (8 in the PDF file).   The emphasis in the first paragraph is mine, the others are from the report.

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Tuesday, Here Comes Science

They Might Be Giants latest kids CD/DVD, Here Comes Science, will be released on Tuesday.  It will be exclusive to Amazon and iTunes until September 22.  For those who can’t wait, there are three videos currently available.  From the band’s YouTube channel, there’s “Electric Car”

Amazon also has an exclusive video for “Science is Real” on its website, and you can watch “I’m A Paleontologist” via the band’s latest podcast, available on iTunes.

FCC Not a Fan of Some Pre-Recorded Robocalls

I don’t know anyone who would consider themselves a fan of robocalls, where you answer the phone to a recording.  As of September 1, many of them will become illegal by act of the Federal Trade Commission (H/T Technology Review).  Live robocalls are still legal, unless you’ve registered your number with the Do-Not-Call Registry.  Purely informational calls (like notifications of canceled flights) are still lawful robocalls if they do not attempt to sale goods or services.  Unfortunately, robocalls “from politicians, banks, telephone carriers, and most charitable organizations – are not covered by the new prohibition.”

Darwin Biopic to Open Toronto Film Festival

Creation (website is noisy and Flash-heavy, this site is less so), a movie adaptation of Annie’s Box, a book about Charles Darwin by his great-great grandson Randal Keynes, will open the Toronto Film Festival on September 10.  By the looks of the trailer, (and trailers can be deceiving) the film focuses on the relationship between Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly); as well as how the death of their daughter (the titular Annie of the book) and the research and writing of On the Origin of Species tested their faith and their relationship.  From the looks of the trailer, expect a story about love, science and accommodation.  Schedule for UK release on 25 September, there is no U.S. release date currently scheduled.

This is a fundamentally British film, with a predominantly British cast and crew.  Besides Bettany and Connelly (who were both in A Dangerous Mind, the John Nash biopic), Americans may recognize Jeremy Northam amongst the other major cast.  The film was directed by Jon Amiel, who may be atoning for directing The Core, an abysmal action picture about a mission to restart the rotation of the Earth’s core.  If he’s not, he should be.

I’d like to see this film get American distribution, if for no other reason than it ought to be a better film than Agora, which will likely downplay the story of Hypatia for a traditional swords, sandals and end of civilization potboiler.  You can see a photo of Bettany and Connelly in character in the September 4 issue of Entertainment Weekly, and plenty of photos from the film on the film’s website.

Swapping One Set of Scarce Resources for Another?

NextGov pointed me to a Telegraph report on a little discussed problem of scarce resources – the kinds that are critical to many new technologies.  As critics of electric cars may point out, their batteries and electronics depend in part on various rare earth metals.  (Recall your periodic table; the rare earth minerals occupy most of the two rows set apart from the rest of the table.)

Periodic Table

Periodic Table

Anyway, as more and more countries move into producing and consuming more advanced technology, the need for these minerals increases.

Currently, China provides the vast majority of the world’s supply of several rare earth minerals.  According to the Telegraph report, rare earth firms in other countries have seen a draft report from the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology suggesting that China stop or heavily restrict the shipments of rare earth minerals it produces.  Other countries will need time to start (or in some cases, restart) production of those minerals.

Of course, this is a draft report, and the final decision is up to a different part of the Chinese government entirely.  It does raise the issue, much like the technetium isotope shortage I mentioned in an earlier post, that countries need to reevaluate what they consider to be critical resources and take better steps to ensure that the supply of those resources is not as vulnerable as many of them are today.

Government Continues to Work on Web 2.0

A number of federal agencies are using Web 2.0 tools.  I’ve posted before about Twitter and government agencies.  Courtesy of nextgov, here are a few articles about further government adventures with social networking.

IRS launches YouTube, iTunes sites – Both sites will host content designed to help taxpayers navigate the provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that apply to tax law.  (Government Computer News)

‘Friending’ in your future? Better pay your taxes first – The Wall Street Journal notes that state tax authorities have been surfing social networking sites to note new addresses and additional income not reported.

CDC starts Web discussion on swine flu – The CDC started the first of two Public Engagement Dialogues (you must register to participate) on H1N1 preparations to better measure public opinion on vaccinations and other steps.  (Federal Computer Week)  The first one ended yesterday, the next one begins on Monday, August 31st.

And from Government Executive comes word that the FCC will launch a social networking site for internal use at the Commission.  This seems comparable to the use of in-house wikis for collaborative work.

PCAST Report Overblown in Press

In what probably doesn’t shock people who cover the news, coverage of this week’s PCAST report on the H1N1 virus and recommendations for planning for that virus overplayed the report’s findings. (H/T The Observatory)  While some coverage committed the sensationalist sin of leading with the high end death toll of a possible scenario (and/or ignoring the low end of the estimate, which is close to the annual flu death toll), others played fast and loose with whether the report makes a prediction or not (it does not).  The report takes pains to note that they are not predicting between 30,000 and 90,000 deaths, but think it prudent to plan for that possibility.  Let’s see how the USA Today covered the report:

U.S. report predicts 30,000 to 90,000 H1N1 deaths

That’s the headline.  While the first paragraph better reflects the report:

“The global flu pandemic expected to return to the USA this fall may infect as much as half the U.S. population, flooding hospitals with nearly 2 million patients and causing 30,000 to 90,000 deaths, according to the first official forecast of the scope of the flu season now getting underway.”

the headline tells a critically different story, and the error there is repeated in an editorial.  As the article in The Observatory notes, other papers played loose with the certainty of the report’s plausible scenario (with some claiming a prediction where there was none), but not as badly as the USA Today.

I know it can be tough for articles in this area to get coverage.  But in an era where it seems more and more journalism resembles stenography rather than fact-checked writing, it seems appropriate to raise a stink more often.

Climate Bill Op-Ed From the Agriculture Secretary?

Found in yesterday’s edition of the Washington Examiner, there’s an op-ed from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack arguing that the benefits to agriculture from climate change legislation will outweigh the costs.  Based on what Secretary Vilsack describes as “conservative estimates of the benefits and high-end predications for potential increases in energy costs” the analysis makes the following assumptions:

  • no technological change
  • no alteration of inputs in agriculture, and
  • no increase in demand for bio-energy as a result of higher energy prices

Now, those more informed on the bill and the associated markets and plans within will note there are other issues with assuming that part of the legislation will unfold as intended.  But I have to think that at last the first two assumptions are very conservative.  Bottom line, the analysis anticipates costs to agriculture in the short and mid terms, with benefits over the long term.

As optimistic as the analysis is that the carbon markets and offsets will work as expected, the messaging here has struck me as odd.  That the Agriculture Secretary would make the argument for climate change legislation is interesting; the farm constituency is significant, but I’m not sure how well they can be convinced there’s something in this for them (big agriculture is notoriously resources intensive).  The other quirk is the placement of the op-ed.  Now perhaps this piece ran in many places, but the Washington Examiner is a free daily (or almost-daily) handed out to more affluent neighborhoods in the D.C. area and available in boxes around town.  Not sure how many of Secretary Vilsack’s target audience would necessarily encounter the Examiner.