So Secretary Clinton Believes In Science. So What?

While there was much to consider in Secretary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, one line struck the fancy of many.  Specifically, “I believe in science.”  I think Grist was closer to the mark than Popular Science in characterizing that line of the speech.  Grist considered it a major applause line, while Popular Science considered it the most controversial line of the speech.

Here’s the line in context:

“And I believe in science. I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.”

The passage is part of a larger section where Secretary Clinton describes four things she believes.  As with each of the other passages in this section (which deal with the middle class, taxes on corporations, and immigrants), Clinton is tying a particular idea to economic impact.  That paragraph says nothing about how the Secretary may treat science and technology in her administration aside from using such knowledge to improve the economy.  Will she seek increases in the research budget?  Will she continue to hold White House Science Fairs and support National Maker Faires?  Answers to those questions would be more responsive to what I think many consider when they hear that a top-level politician ‘believes’ in science.

The issue of Secretary Clinton’s belief in science in the context of this speech strikes me as more about believing in what science (and technology) can do for the economy.  It’s not all that different from how President Obama used science in his First Inaugural Address – as part of a larger argument about bold action necessary to boost the U.S. economy.

I don’t write this in order to claim that Secretary Clinton (or President Obama) do not support science as a way of understanding the world.  I wish to make the point that in the context of these political speeches, the invocation of science is intended to advance political goals.  Perhaps both of them sought to appeal to the scientists, engineers and others who want more scientific and technological thinking in political life.  But even if they did, it strikes me as unlikely that such a purpose was the primary reason for using that language.

Besides, if people are getting excited about a President (or a major candidate for that office) affirming that they believe in science, then perhaps their expectations are pathetically low.  And perhaps some efforts could be focused on how the scientific community and its allies allowed such a low bar to exist in the first place.

Non-Travel Zika Emergence In Florida Likely To Increase Your Cynicism

Yesterday the Florida Department of Health announced that there was a high likelihood that four cases of the Zika virus in the Miami-Dade County area were due to local transmission.  This marks the first time that non-travel related cases were found in the continental United States.  There are currently just under 400 cases of Zika confirmed in the state that are travel-related (contracted due to travel in areas outside of the continental United States).  The Health Department will continue to update its Zika virus information each weekday at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

At this time the area of transmission is quite small – roughly one square mile.  However, two of the infected individuals live in neighboring Broward County.  The Department has instituted a serious canvass effort in the transmission area to determine if there are additional cases that have not caught the attention of medical personnel (which was the situation for the four cases reported to date).  As the mosquito bites that transmitted the virus took place in early July, additional cases seem likely.  However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not anticipate widespread transmission at the present time.

As of July 27, there were 1,658 cases of Zika in the continental United States and Hawaii, all of which were travel related (thought some cases were spread via sex or in one case, a laboratory accident).  However, the situation in Puerto Rico is serious, with over 5,500 cases in the commonwealth as of July 7.  The CDC has been working with Puerto Rican health agencies for months, but its impact has been limited.

As Congress is not in session (and won’t be until September), the anemic federal response (mainly redirecting unspent money for the Ebola virus) will continue.  Members of Congress from Florida have been diligent in advocating for funding, and the Obama Administration had provided $8 million before the President informed Governor Scott that another $5.6 million was on the way.  It’s a lot less than what share Florida would receive under the various Zika aid packages that Congress tried and failed to pass earlier this year.

That said, I would expect the newly reported cases would spur some action, even if it’s only campaign rhetoric in connection with the upcoming elections.  Florida is once again expected to be a major battleground in the presidential race, and it would not surprise me to see one or both of the major party candidates to try and wring some advantage from the situation.  Whether it will be well informed remains to be seen, but the campaign to date leaves me skeptical.

The change in action following the Florida cases, however slight, will also point out the dramatic difference in attention that our outlying territories receive compared to the states.  Congressional representation matters, especially in situations like this.

U.S. And U.K. Team Up On Antibiotic Resistance

On Thursday the U.S. and the U.K. announced a bilateral public-private partnership to address the challenges of antibiotic resistance.  CARB-X (Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator) is a joint effort of the following organizations:

From the U.K.

  • Wellcome Trust
  • AMR Centre

From the U.S.

  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
  • Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • California Life Sciences Institute
  • MassBio
  • Boston University Law School
  • Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
  • RTI International

The accelerator intends to support at least 20 antibacterial products, with funding for the project coming primarily from BARDA, Wellcome and the AMR Centre.  BARDA has committed to providing $250 million over 5 years, and Wellcome and the AMR Centre will provide additional funds.  NIAID will provide in-kind research and technical support.  Additionally, the private sector partners will provide research and/or business support for projects selected by CARB-X.

There is a two-stage application process for CARB-X support.  Interested projects will need to submit an Expression of Interest form, and if selected, will complete a fuller application process with one of the CARB-X accelerators (Wellcome, AMR Centre, MassBio or the California Life Sciences Institute).  Expressions of Interest are being accepted through the end of October, though it is possible that there will be future funding cycles.

What About The Privately Owned Research Chimps?

In 2015 The National Institutes of Health ended its support for invasive research on chimpanzees, continuing the retirement of federally owned research chimpanzees it started in 2013.  In 2015 the Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified research chimpanzees as endangered, further restricting chimpanzee research under a permitting system.

The research chimpanzees retired by the NIH (a process that has not gone well) have been guaranteed spots in a Louisiana sanctuary.  Research chimpanzees not held by the government do not have such a guarantee, but a reserve in Georgia has been redeveloped to fill that need.  It’s not the only option for those 300 or so chimps that need a home.  They could retire in place, or be transferred to other research centers or zoos.

Project Chimps spearheaded the effort, which should help address this need.  The sanctuary has taken its first group of chimps, and expects to host over 250 animals.

If You Wanted Hamilton To Have More Scientists In It, Watch This Video

While tickets to the theater phenomenon that is Hamilton have been hard to come by, the music has been easier to find.  And easier to listen to, obsess over, and create parodies of like this gem.  With words by Tim Blais (nom de YouTube – A Capella Science), and music from the song Alexander Hamilton, the video features a plethora of science focused YouTube creators, many of whom I’ve posted about here before.  See how many you can recognize.

Go ahead, listen to it again.

Sir William Rowan Hamilton was unknown to me before this tune.  He’s a Irish scientist of the 19th century, with expertise in physics, mathematics, and astronomy.  The video focuses on his work with algebraic triplets, which, if I can oversimplify it, involves expanding the use of complex numbers into three dimensions.  His knighthood preceded his work in triplets, and acknowledged his earlier extensive work in optics.  That work included developing a function that describes the working of an optical system and applying that function to dynamic systems.

But it’s still more entertaining to listen to all of that in three minutes and change versus reading that colorless paragraph.

Update Tuesday: New Names For HeLa Film And Defense Innovation Board

Two quick items that have little or no relation to each other.

The film adaptation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks continues with the casting announcements.  Renée Elise Goldsberry has joined the cast as the title character, whose cells were taken and used for medical research without her knowledge or consent.  Goldsberry is best known for her Tony-winning role as Angelica Schuyler Church in the play Hamilton.  She recently left the play, and depending on when this film comes out, it might be a way for her to be seen by more people than managed to see her off or on Broadway.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently announced several additions to the Department’s Innovation Advisory Board.  This would expand the board to 15 members, and Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is board chair.  Secretary Carter has asked the board to identify private-sector practices and technology solutions that the Department could adopt.  The full roster of board members is (names of the new additions in bold italics):

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman, Alphabet Inc. (DIAB chair)
Jeff Bezos, president, chairman and CEO, Amazon Inc.
Adam Grant, professor, Wharton School of Business
Danny Hillis, computer theorist & co-founder, Applied Inventions
Reid Hoffman, co-founder, LinkedIn, and partner, Greylock Partners
Walter Isaacson, president & CEO, Aspen Institute
Eric Lander, president and founding director, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
Marne Levine, chief operating officer, Instagram
J. Michael McQuade, senior vice president for science and technology, United Technologies
William McRaven, chancellor, University of Texas System
Milo Medin, vice president, Access Services, Google Capital
Richard Murray, professor, California Institute of Technology
Jennifer Pahlka, founder, Code for America
Cass Sunstein, professor, Harvard Law School
Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and author

You might notice a few notable names (for instance, Sunstein is scheduled to be on The Late ShowThe Nightly Show later this week) on the board.  The board is expected to provide initial recommendations by October.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of July 25

This week the Democratic National Convention takes place in Philadelphia, and that will prompt similar late night changes to what happened last week.  There should be an episode of Weekend Update on Wednesday night, The Late Show is live (to the East Coast) at least through Thursday, and there may be an extra episode of Full Frontal on Wednesday night.  I have no idea if science and technology matters will play a role in any of this, but it’s fair to say the situation is relatively fluid.

As for the convention, from what I’ve seen of the schedule, it appears that any science and technology issue discussion is limited to meetings that are not on the convention floor.  Some people are speaking about various medical conditions, but none of them are slated for evening spots that will receive much media attention (and therefore serve as fodder for the late night programs).

Last week I mentioned an appearance from Ron Suskind on Monday’s edition of The Late Show to discuss a documentary focused on his autistic son.  That did not happen.  It’s entirely possible that the interview was recorded and will be aired at a later date, because that happened with another guest scheduled for Monday night.  Her interview aired on Friday, which was mostly a ‘highlights’ show with in-studio introductions from Colbert recorded very early Friday morning.

Promotion continues for the new Star Trek film (again, I’m mentioning only those actors who play scientists or engineers in the film).  Zachary Quinto, who plays Science Officer Spock, was on Live with Kelly this morning and will be on Watch What Happens Live Tuesday night.

Tatiana Maslany, recently nominated for an Emmy recognizing her work as several clones on Orphan Black, makes the rounds this week as well.  She appears on The Late Late Show Tuesday and on the episode of Chelsea that Netflix premieres on Friday.  On that same episode is the science author Mary Roach.  Her latest book focuses on military science and technology and like some of her other books, embraces things that many would consider squeamish.

In other guest news, scholar of (among other things) behavioral economics Cass Sunstein, who is usually part of any discussion involving ‘nudges’ in public policy, is on The Nightly Show on Thursday.

No ‘missed content’ this week, mainly due to politics dominating the late night landscape (unless you were with Conan O’Brien at Comic Con).  That may happen again this week.