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.


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.)

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.

2016 Blows Open The Futility Of Making Science Policy A Presidential Campaign Issue

I’ll save my barbs for the Sisyphean delusion of ScienceDebate for another post, but with the candidate pool now down to two presumptive nominees, it’s worth discussing what little we know about their respective science and technology policies.  (How well these campaigns will do to fulfill these promises is hard to gauge in advance, but it’s reasonable to prepare for disappointment.)

It’s difficult to know exactly what policies would be implemented by a President Trump in part because of his willful inconsistency in policy statements.  The libertarian magazine Reason evaluated Republican candidates on science issues earlier this year, and Mr. Trump failed to distinguish himself from his former competitors.  But that evaluation was based on Tweets and other offhand remarks by the candidate.  As Mr. Trump has sometimes contradicted or reversed himself (I suppose which one fits varies with your perspective) within the span of hours or days, I think it plausible that he would do the same for science and technology policy.  But the current chaos of his campaign makes me wonder when and if he would turn to matters of science and technology policy.  I would not be surprised if a President Trump didn’t bother to appoint a science adviser during his first year in office.

Matthew Nisbet, professor of communication at Northeastern, makes the argument that Mr. Trump’s positions on climate (consistent with mainstream Republican dismissal of the phenomenon and the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels), combined with his nationalism and casual disregard for international agreements, would be catastrophic for action on climate change.  I don’t think Mr. Trump’s potential for disruption is limited to climate action, and it is the potential for instability in other areas that I think would persuade more voters to reject him.

As for Secretary Clinton, you can find specific science and technology issues on her website – climate, various diseases, manufacturing, energy.  But I think her 2008 website was more substantive on issues that people engaged in science and technology policy would find of interest.  This year the most press attention that any of Secretary Clinton’s science policies has received was on UFOs.  She is even on television stating her interest in looking into the files and making them as public as possible.

This year’s presidential election is unique in many ways, and perhaps science and technology policy is one of those ways.  In past years at least we have seen campaigns answer questionnaires on science and technology issues.  We may not even get that much this year, at least where one campaign is concerned.  I hope it might convince some to focus their attention on other federal offices for raising the profile of science and technology issues, but I shan’t hold my breath.

314 PAC Founder Seeking Congressional Seat

314 PAC is a political action committee focused on supporting scientists and engineers running for political office.  The most active of the three political action committees focused on science, 314 PAC has endorsed only Democratic candidates to date.

In this cycle, 314 PAC has endorsed 5 candidates, four of whom are incumbents (Representatives Bill Foster of Illinois, Louise Slaughter of New York, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Jerry McNerney of California).  The non-incumbent candidate is Shaughnessy Naughton, a trained chemist running for an open seat in Pennsylvania.

Naughton is also the founder of 314 PAC, and this is her second campaign for the House.  Her experience running for this seat in 2014 (she narrowly lost in the Democratic primary) was part of the motivation for her forming 314 PAC.  There are a total of five candidates running for the seat, two Democrats and three Republicans.  The primary election (likely dwarfed by the ongoing Presidential campaign) is on Tuesday the 26th.

Science Goes To The Movies Knicks The Sociology Of Medical Research

The latest episode of Science Goes to the Movies (now debuting new episodes weekly) uses the Showtime series The Knick as a springboard to discuss the sociology of medicine.  Sure, the word sociology is never said, but when the program discusses race as a social construct in the first 5 minutes, it’s certainly a theme for this program.

(I will note that there is one picture involving the lack of a nose around    Host Faith Salie is not keen on the image, and you might not be either.  There are also spoilers for one of the main characters around the 20 minute mark.)

The Knick takes place in New York around the turn of the 20th century and covers the explosion of advances in medicine and medical technology.  But this episode does not dwell on this outside of making a comparison with the ways genetic information has affected medicine today.  Arguably more time is spent in the episode on how difficult it still is to get medical records online and to share it through up-to-date technology.

But the guest, Dr. Jill Bargonetti, Professor of Biological Sciences at Hunter College, guides the conversation (along with host Dr. Heather Berlin) through many of the ways that bias, ego, prejudice and other human feelings can affect how much research is communicated (or not) and how the outcomes of research can be affected by those sociological phenomena.  While you might find Salie’s questions a bit naïve, it can be useful to have a lay person asking questions about things that the two scientists may forget aren’t commonly understood.

Next week Science Goes to the Movies turns to Doctor Who.  Besides talking time travel, the episode will explore how a certain race in the show resonates with elements of quantum theory.

First 2016 Golden Goose Award Recognizes Happy Accidents

Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Awards announced the first recipients of the award for 2016.  The Golden Goose Awards are intended as a counter to the long passed Golden Fleece Awards.  Where the latter targeted federal spending (including some scientific grants) the Golden Goose Awards are intended to point out seemingly obscure research that has significant impacts.

The first honorees this year are Peter Bearman, Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald Rindfuss, and Richard Udry.  They are being recognized for their work in a key piece of longitudinal research – The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (often called Add Health).  This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health in the early 1990s and continues to provide insight into human behavior.

The award citation is long, and details the political disagreements that led to delays and then the cancellation of a previously proposed study that more explicitly targeted adolescent sexual behavior.  It’s worth reading, but in my mind it distracts from the serendipity that is a common element in Golden Goose Award recipients. I can understand the reasons for pointing out that those who opposed the first study have since come around on its value, but if the goal of the award is to highlight the connections between research and impact that cannot be anticipated, this political debate over funding is off point.

The study benefited from choices made in the research design and early implementation.  One of these was botching the collection of medical data from the study participants in the second point in the time series.  While preventing the assessment of some relevant medical data, it allowed for the research to continue with a designated cohort for far longer than originally planned.  This means that the study initially focused on adolescent to adult health can now track from adolescence throughout the participants lives, should funding continue that long.

Another point of serendipity is the rise in obesity concurrent with this study.  The depth of available data allowed researchers to dive into connections between behaviors and obesity.  This helped support research pointing out how obesity can actually spread among social groups.

While the Golden Goose Award folks didn’t do it in the citation, I think this award simply reinforces the value of longitudinal studies and the difficulty in designing and implementing them.  Either way, the researchers involved in Add Health are worthy of recognition and will receive their award in Washington this September.

Another Way Science Understanding Could Be Useful In The Courts

I didn’t post about Fisher v. Texas when arguments went before the Supreme Court in December (for the second time).  It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned.  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I think this point about science (which is applicable to many other aspects of life) is more important for judges (and Justices) to understand than specific facts generated by science.  A reductionist approach to science, as articulated by Chief Justice Roberts, serves no one well, whether they are practicing science, or judging on how diversity in science may or may not serve a compelling public interest.

(Readers may note that with the Supreme Court currently one Justice down, that the case may end up tied and therefore uphold the decision of the lower court – that the admissions policy is constitutional.  However, Justice Elena Kagan took part in the case as Solicitor General and recused herself the first time the Supreme Court heard it.  So there will only be 7 Justices voting on it.  Remember, I am not a lawyer.)