Supreme Court Decides To Hear Gene Patents Case

The last time this blog addressed the Myriad Genetics case, involving the patenting of two genes that show a strong correlation with breast cancer, an appellate court had reconsidered the case at the direction of the Supreme Court.  The order was a mixed bag, upholding the companies claims on the gene patents, but not on the testing method for cancer risk.

This latest ruling was appealed back to the Supreme Court, which earlier today agreed to hear the case (again) (H/T The New York Times).  The Court will only hear one aspect of the certiorari petition – the question of whether human genes are patentable.  The dispute centers, at least in part, on whether isolating the genes makes them sufficiently different from those in the body in order to be patentable.

The granting of certiorari does not include a date for oral arguments.  They could happen anytime during the current term, which runs until late June.  SCOTUSBlog, a reliable source for Supreme Court activities, suggests arguments will be heard in March.

Future Science Funding Source – Massive Criminal Settlements?

The recent judgment announced in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill has some research-related set-asides, as ScienceInsider notes.  Specifically, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation expects to receive nearly $2.4 billion of the $4 billion fine, which they intend to use in various ecological restoration projects.  The Foundation was created by Congress in the 1980s for this kind of work, but the part of the settlement they expect to receive dwarfs the roughly $23 million the Foundation spent on Gulf restoration projects since the 2010 spill, and the $128 million spent on Gulf restoration projects since the early 1990s.  Those wishing to dive into the specifics of the plea agreement relevant to the Foundation’s share of the settlement can read them here.  The funds are designated for projects in those states most affected by the spill.

Another chunk of the $4 billion settlement is directed to the National Academies in order to establish a long-term research program focused on human health and environmental protection in the Gulf of Mexico.  The Academies will administer a $350 million fund to conduct studies, programs and other activities

“to advance scientific and technical understanding to enhance the protection of human health and environmental resources in the Gulf Coast region including issues concerning the safety of offshore oil drilling and hydrocarbon production and transportation in the Gulf of Mexico and on the United States’ outer continental shelf.  The program will also aim to contribute to the development of advanced environmental monitoring systems.”

While not explicitly stated in the press release, it seems likely that the program activities will be conducted by relevant units of the Academies, building on the five reports the Academies have released to date on various aspects of the oil spill. The plan is for these activities to take place over a 30 year period.  This the four-year length of the National Institutes of Health long term study on the spill seem positively speedy.

This is not the extent of the research and restoration that BP funds are supporting.  The Gulf of Mexico Research Institute has been promised $500 million, and civil fines due to violations of the Clean Water Act should funnel several billion dollars to research and restoration projects.  This is above and beyond the $4 billion recently announced.

Of course, there was an incredible cost – in lives, property and other losses – that prompted this research money.  It would seem that’s the most effective motivator for long-term study of drastic changes to ecosystems.  Of course, it helps to have a culpable party to foot the bill.  Don’t expect similar things to come from the aftermath of storms like Katrina or Sandy.

Brinkman Back Off-Broadway With Ingenious Nature

Baba Brinkman’s latest Off-Broadway production, Ingenious Nature, is in previews at the Soho Playhouse.  It is scheduled to run Wednesday-Sunday each week until early in January.  Schedules are subject to change, so make sure to check with the theater before heading to Manhattan.

It may tread some of the material from Rap Guide to Evolution, but this isn’t a retread.  While still a ‘theatrical mixtape’ the show is described on the theater website as something a bit closer to a play than a performance.

“Everyone’s looking for love, or sex, occasionally even both. The science of evolutionary psychology claims to explain why, and how, this state of affairs came about. But can it help us find the right one? A young man decides to take the “science of mating” seriously in his personal quest for true romance. Will the theory work in practice? It turns out, ovulation studies can make for awkward first-date conversation. Ingenious Nature is a new theatrical mix-tape from Baba Brinkman, creator of The Canterbury Tales Remixed (“Delightful!” The New York Times) and The Rap Guide to Evolution (2011 Drama Desk Award Nominee).”

Brinkman has a few additional details on his website:

“In the show I go on a series of dates with women I meet through OK Cupid (a dating website), while using evolutionary psychology as a roadmap to help understand the conflicts of interest and personality-clashes that ensue. Will I find a match worthy of parental investment? I date a creationist and explore the “behavioural immune system” theory of social conservatism, and a new-age yoga instructor teaches me about the seven chakras, which turn out to have a loose correlate in the psych lit as well. Putting theory into practice is wild ride when it comes to the science of mating.”

Via Brinkman’s Twitter feed, it seems the show is set up to display Tweets and texts during the performance.  I have no idea how that fits into the show, but it might be interesting to see.

So, if this interests you, act fast.  The show is scheduled to close in early January, meaning you have about six weeks, including holidays, to plan your trip.

The Paucity Of Science Policy In Times Of Budget Stress

For over a year, the possibility of severe, across-the-board budget cuts (the ‘sequester’) has been known.  But only recently (since September, as far as I can tell) have science policy agencies and advocates said much about the situation.  A recent briefing on the topic organized by AAAS reflects the tenor of the conversation.  A sample quote:

“Funding cuts may also result in reduction of postdoctoral and graduate student appointments at our national laboratories,” said Orlando Auciello, Endowed Chair Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. More broadly, that would jeopardize “the training and the supply of the next generation of future scientists and engineers who can make a tremendous impact in the future economy of the United States.”

The quote mentions budget cuts rather than a lack of budget increases.  But the arguments used in these different circumstances are similar.  Science and technology have notable impacts on the nation and its economy, so we should get more money.

Now, it’s possible that encouraging preparations for bad budgetary times makes for bad advocacy.  That offering guidance for grantees and funded institutions on how to deal with fewer and smaller grants somehow makes it harder to argue for more money later.  But it’s hard for me not to see a little head-in-the-sand thinking.  For instance, read this quote from an interview with National Cancer Institute (and former National Institutes of Health) Director Harold Varmus in September.

“On the “sequestration,” or looming, across-the-board federal budget cuts if Congress and the Obama Administration can’t agree on how to cut the deficit: “I don’t like it and I assume it won’t happen.” Varmus said that although NCI’s $5 billion budget would be cut by 8%, because so much funding is set aside for ongoing grants, the cut could slash by 40% the funds available for new and competing grants.”

At some level that attitude strikes me as irresponsible.  Given the recent budget passing difficulties of Congress, I would hope that federal agencies are taking steps to be better prepared for instances where the planned budget increases don’t materialize with the new Fiscal Year, but some months later.

Of course, if they’re doing this and not telling anyone, fine.  But it does little for my confidence (and perhaps the confidence of others?) to see a lot of blinders-on thinking.  Maybe if science policy didn’t focus so much on the budget, it could actually be better prepared for when the budgets don’t come out as planned (which seems to be the new normal).

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

This is the strongest week for new science and technology guests that I’ve seen in some time.  Amongst the repeats is an appearance from Nintendo CEO Reggie Fils-Aime on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  It was from earlier this month, and can be seen Wednesday night.

This week Jay Leno merits two entries.  Tonight/Monday Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory (he plays a scientist) is on, and Tuesday the ‘Rocket City Rednecks’ (a group of engineers with NASA experience out of Huntsville, Alabama) return to The Tonight Show.  The usual suspects show up later in the week.  Physicist Sean Carroll will visit with Stephen Colbert on Thursday, to discuss Carroll’s new book on the search for the Higgs Boson.  On Friday, to bookend (sort of) with Parsons’ Monday appearance on Leno, Mayim Bialik, who also plays a scientist on The Big Bang Theory, sits down with Craig Ferguson.

I also want to point out two other instances of pop culture highlighting science.  All last week on the comic strip Doonesbury there was a post-election “Math and Science Victory Lap” featuring various folks involved with math and science issues in the latest U.S. election campaign.  It started on November 19, and ran through November 24.

Also of interest is this past weekend’s edition of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, a quiz show heard weekly through National Public Radio.  As reader Paul Baskem noted, the ‘best of’ show used clips that involved interviews with scientists and/or discussed scientific topics.

Technological Ambivalence In The Movies

I watched the latest Bond film, Skyfall, this afternoon.  I shall endeavor to keep the post spoiler free, but you should be mindful that anything I link to in this post may contain spoilers.  FWIW, I enjoyed the film, but I’m also of the age where I grew up with these films.

The plot of the movie is put in motion by the theft of an encrypted hard drive with the names of undercover agents.  Computer technology also factors into how the film’s villain can do what he wants, and going without it helps Bond and MI6 gain an advantage.  As this piece on The Atlantic‘s website notes, technology has always been a part of the Bond movies, but usually as eye candy rather than a means of expressing a theme.

Yet I don’t think Skyfall is completely successful in its use of technology.  It falls into the same shortcut of sequences of keystrokes and fancy monitors that many films use to demonstrate fighting or hacking into systems.  It manages to insult the intelligence of some of its characters and perhaps the audience with how it considers good security practice.  If there is a lesson to be taught about the threats networked and other high technology present, the distractions from how Skyfall executes it make that lesson hard to learn.  (In this the film does little better than many other popular films of the last several years.)

Where the film perhaps is most effective in highlighting mixed feelings over technology is in the interactions between Bond and Q.  While their respective points of view on what makes for the most effective intelligence differ, how they work together in the film demonstrates – at least to me – how a combination of perspectives on technology can make it easier to avoid the lazy thinking that can happen when one relies too much on using technology (or avoiding it).

At this point, I’m not sure how much of the ambivalence in the title is in the movies, or in me.  Interactions with technology are pretty complicated, and its really tough to give them justice in a two-hour film designed to entertain.  At some point I wonder whether it would be better to avoid the lip service and simply focus more on the characters and story. But I’m not in the movie making business.

Educational Hip Hop Knows No Disciplinary Bounds – Rhyming Math

Another week, another teacher using hip-hop in the classroom.

Today the focus is on Montgomery County (Maryland) high school teacher Jake Scott, featured in today’s Washington Post.  Scott occasionally uses rhymes to help his students understand math concepts.  He has released a few videos on YouTube under the nom de rhyme 2 Pi.  Here’s one on the Pythagorean Theorem.

His emphasis is on students whose first language is not English, preparing them for advanced math courses.  His work has been recognized by the Montgomery County school system and the local branch of the NAACP.  His educational star is rising independent of his rhyming ability.  Good on him.  With any luck, the Washington Post article will get his name in front of others who can spread his work around.