Screwworm Sex Study Snares Second Golden Goose Of 2016

June 23 Update – The Golden Goose Award organizers reached out and pointed me to this press noting criticism of the screwworm fly study.  There are likely contemporaneous references in the Congressional Record, which to my knowledge has not been digitized that far back.

ORIGINAL POST

Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Award recognized the work of Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland on the sex life of the screwworm fly.  This is the second group of researchers recognized this year, and their work will be formally recognized at the Golden Goose Award ceremony held this September in Washington.

The Golden Goose Award is meant to recognize federally funded research that may be considered silly or foolish but is later found to have profound impact.  The work by Knipling and Bushland was funded by the Department of Agriculture starting in the 1930s, and led to techniques that were critical in eliminating the screwworm fly from North and Central America. Knipling’s work developed and tested a theory of reducing the screwworm fly population by introducing sterilized males and Bushland developed a means for growing the numbers of sterilized males necessary to be effective in eradicating the flies.

Research on the sex lives of flies (or any insect, really) could easily be derided as a waste of effort.  Unless those casting aspersions knew of farmers and/or ranchers affected by the spread of such insects.  The screwworm fly feeds on living (as opposed to dead) animals, posing a serious risk to livestock and wild animals.  I would have expected that the economic impact of eradicating a parasitic fly would have pushed down concerns over the perceived frivolity of fly sex research.  But even in the time before Senator Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards, the Golden Goose organizers claim that this research was a favorite target of elected officials and others seeking to shine a light on Washington waste.  Given what seems like the clear application of this work and its profound impact, I think the value of this particular award (but not the research) is blunted by the lack of direct evidence of the ridicule.

(In researching this post, I have found conflicting accounts as to whether or not Proxmire recognized this work.  My review of this Wisconsin history database of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece related press releases suggests he did not.)

Private Space Companies Had A Busy Week

Earlier today Blue Origin launched and landed one of its rockets for the fourth time.  That is, it has used the same hardware on four separate launches.  While this is a better record than SpaceX (which had a crash following its latest launch), SpaceX did have three consecutive launches and landings, and its rockets are also delivering payloads into orbit.  The mission this rocket supported was the deployment of two satellites into geostationary transfer orbit.  This requires more fuel, meaning the margin of error for a landing is much smaller due to less fuel being available for maneuvering.  The specific problem was identified as a lack of sufficient thrust in one of the Falcon 9’s three engines, and the company has been working on this problem since before this crash.  While this breaks SpaceX’s streak of consecutive landings, both it and Blue Origin can now claim four successful landings each.

Blue Origin remains a suborbital operation at the present time, and used this latest launch to test the parachutes on its crew capsule.  The near-term goal for Blue Origin is to deliver tourists into space (though not orbit, at least not at first).  To that end, future tests will include versions of the crew capsule that more closely resemble the tourist vehicle they want to start using with humans in 2018.

That same year, SpaceX intends to start a more aggressive program – getting to Mars.  At the recent Code Conference SpaceX CEO Elon Musk outlined how he sees the company eventually getting people to Mars.  It starts with a cargo route.  By establishing a regular series of flights to the Red Planet, costs can be spread across the flights and the regularity can encourage clients (researchers, scientists, etc.) to pay for space on those flights.  Musk wants to start these flights in 2018, with an eye toward launching a crewed vehicle (a bigger version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule called Red Dragon) to Mars in 2024, with a landing in 2025.  Now, should there be problems in any of the previous flights, the first human mission would likely be pushed further out.  But I expect that SpaceX will try and leverage any and all of its paid flights for testing aspects of their technology that would be used on this so-called cargo route.

Where is NASA in all of this?  They will provide ‘technical support’ for SpaceX in its 2018 mission, in exchange for access to the mission data.  It would inform NASA’s own Mars plans, which currently have humans landing on Mars in the 2030s.  (It should be noted that the typical competing Congressional and Presidential visions for the agency will flare up again after the election, and NASA’s plans may change.)

National Maker Faire Returns To Washington

Tomorrow and Sunday, June 17 and 18, is when the second National Maker Faire takes place at the University of the District of Columbia.  It is the biggest event of the National Week of Making, which started today.  Tickets are required, but they are free.

The Maker Faire will have demonstrations and presentations from makers and people supporting and studying making.  The schedule is packed, even moreso than last year.  There are also workshop opportunities, which may require a small additional fee.  Attendees can also see some  of the cutting edge research facilities at the University.

The Week of Making provides the Obama Administration the opportunity to announce several government and private sector commitments that has some connection to providing maker spaces or otherwise supporting technology education.  The White House has a full list of these commitments available online (and a more detailed fact sheet), but here are a few that drew my interest:

  • Over 1400 K-12 schools have committed to having a maker space available for their students.
  • A trend of having libraries serve as maker spaces, encouraged by programs like the Education Department’s Future Ready initiative, and the efforts of many public and private organizations to utilize recreation centers, libraries and similar spaces to support making.
  • Agencies making an effort to help makers navigate their funding (NSF, NIST) or regulatory (FDA) procedures.
  • The continued efforts of longstanding making organizations like Maker Media, to spread the word.  The tour headed by Adam Savage could be very interesting, especially if it manages to reach beyond the making audience that already follows the former MythBusters host and his projects.

Most can’t make it to Washington for the weekend Maker Faire.  There are also a number of events taking place across the country (and not limited to the official Week of Making).  Feel free to check the calendar for something happening near you.

 

Canadian Government Engaged In Fundamental Science Review

Part of the Canadian government’s 2016 budget stipulated a review of science funding government-wideThis review will be led by Science Minster Kirsty Duncan, and was launched earlier this week.  Minister Duncan expects the review to be completed by the end of 2016.

The review will be support by an independent panel of experience researchers.  Former president of the University of Toronto David Naylor will chair the panel.  The panelists are drawn from various public and private entities across Canada (Dr. Birgeneau preceded Naylor at the University of Toronto).  The men and women working with Naylor on the panel are:

  • Dr. Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research, Dalhousie University
  • Mike Lazaridis, co-founder, Quantum Valley Investments
  • Dr. Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Lethbridge
  • Dr. Art McDonald, former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, Nobel Laureate
  • Dr. Martha Piper, interim president, University of British Columbia
  • Dr. Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist, Quebec
  • Dr. Anne Wilson, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies Fellow and professor of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

The panel will assess the current state of Canadian research institutions as well as examining the Canadian research ecosystem as a whole.  It will consult with members of the Canadian research community and solicit input from the public.  The panel will also review international best practices, particularly in areas that they identify as weaknesses in the Canadian system.

 

The panel’s mandate focuses on support for fundamental research, research facilities, and platform technologies.  This will include the three granting councils as well as other research organisations such as the Canadian Foundation for Innvoation. But it does not preclude the panel from considering and providing advice and recommendations on research matters outside of the mandate.  The plan is to make the panel’s work and recommendations readily accessible to the public, either online or through any report or reports the panel produces.  The panel’s recommendations to Minister Duncan are non-binding.  However, with researchers on the panel   that are experienced in providing such advice to governments (such as Dr. Naylor), I think the panel’s recommendation stand a fair chance of being adopted by the government.

As Ivan Semeniuk notes at The Globe and Mail, the recent Nurse Review in the U.K., which led to the notable changes underway in the organization of that country’s research councils, seems comparable to this effort.  But I think it worth noting the differences in the research systems of the two countries, and the different political pressures in play.  It is not at all obvious to this writer that the Canadian review would necessarily lead to similar recommendations for a streamlining and reorganization of the Canadian research councils.  Yes, Dr. Naylor recommended a streamlining of health care organisations in a review he conducted during the previous government.  But the focus in health care is more application focused than is usually expected of fundamental research.

There is a simple mechanism online to receive comments (attachments are accepted as well), and as the panel begins its work, I would expect to see announcements of future meetings/consultations with stakeholders and the public.  To keep informed, visit the website, and sign up for email updates.

Now There’s A Data Platform For The Cancer Moonshot

On Monday Vice President Biden announced the release of an open-access data commons in support of the Cancer Moonshot.  Called the Genomic Data Commons (GDC), and hosted at the National Cancer Institute, this data commons makes available standardized raw genomic and clinical data for over 12,000 patients.  While the GDC will have utility for many different areas of research (including the Precision Medicine Initiative), the linkage to the Cancer Moonshot is meaningful in part due to the limited time the Vice President has to make it easier for cancer researchers to make advances in the field.

Having this much raw data available in one database is helpful because it will be easier to analyze the data for each new tool and method developed in the fight against cancer and in the further exploration of the human genome.  As explained in this video, the single commons effectively allows many more researchers access to the increasing amounts of data being generated.  It’s a means of increasing the human processing power available for these diseases.

Data submitted to these commons will have to be obtained through proper consent procedures and be properly managed and controlled in order to preserve patient privacy and confidentiality (too bad the new Common Rule regulations are not quite ready).  But hopefully good data management and increased research output from commons like this can encourage the development of similar tools for progress in other diseases.

Congress Likely To Punt On National GMO Labeling Legislation

Vermont passed a law in 2014 requiring that grocery food labels will need to declare if the products contain ingredients that were genetically modified.  The law is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, even with a pending lawsuit in federal court.  As the market in Vermont is relatively small, it is not economically feasible to print labels just for products sold in Vermont, which will effectively make the Vermont labeling law a national standard…

Unless Congress does something by July 1, or other states enter the labeling space and offer their own bills.

As you might guess, the chances of Congress acting by the deadline are relatively slim.  An effort to prevent state GMO labeling laws failed in March.  There are efforts underway to find a way forward, but with a limited number of legislative days before July 1, there might not be enough time.  Given that the Secretary of Agriculture and major food producers are interested in a national standard (if for no other reason than to avoid a patchwork of several different state laws), I think this is another example of the willingness of Congress to not do its job (see the annual tragedy of the budget process for the first, best example of this negligence).

For the record, my personal position on this is much like what the General Mills executive outlined in the blog post I cited earlier.  I think GMO food products have been demonstrated as safe for human consumption, but I also think it reasonable to label products with GMO ingredients.

About Those Government Reports That Sit On A Shelf

Today (early Thursday UK time) Sense About Science, a UK charity focused on public access to and understanding of scientific evidence, released a report it commissioned about UK government-commissioned research (H/T ScienceInsider).  The report was also supported by the JRSST Charitable Trust.

The focus of the report is not on scientific research funded by the UK government in general, but on studies commissioned on research that would inform policy.  After press reports claiming delay or suppression of research that could be politically awkward, Sense About Science asked Sir Stephen Sedley a former judge in the Court of Appeal, to conduct an inquiry.

There are to big problems, and both seem to me to be something that any country’s government – whether well-intentioned or negligent – could have.  The main problem for me is that the UK government does a poor job tracking and making accessible the research for policy it does commission.  Only 4 of the 24 UK government departments have a research database for this kind of report, and 11 departments were unable to provide a list of research they had commissioned.

Sir Stephen noted that the rules governing the publication of this research is similarly inconsistent across departments and relatively susceptible to manipulation so that commissioned research could easily be gathering dust on office shelves.  He recommends that there be a central government register for this research, and that it be accessible to the public.  Expect Sense About Science to make this a key issue moving forward.

I think this would be an excellent idea for the U.S. to follow.  I do not think that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would be a good place for this register, primarily because the proposed register is for all agencies, and not just those with which the OSTP has a long-standing relationship.  I think it would be better suited for the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, or a comparable agency with cross-government responsibilities and a history of collecting information and making it available for public review and analysis.