This week’s science blog is an excuse to point you at Will Saletan’s thorough article exposing the deceptions used by the forces opposed to genetically modified foods. After a year of reporting, he has unveiled a long post thick with links to studies by scientists and claims by anti-GMO activists. It is very very damning. The anti-GMO crowd make the Intelligent Designers look like Marie Curie:
I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.
Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.
Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.
Saletan focuses on three examples of anti-GMO nutbaggery. The first the is the ringspot virus-resistant papaya, engineered to save the papaya industry in Hawaii. Environmentalist groups unleashed every trick in the book: claiming it was unsafe to consume a viral protein that people were consuming anyway; claiming it was bankrupting farmers (because of their opposition); claiming it had not been proven safe. All of these were lies and distortions, pushed by people with an agenda.
Next is crops containing Bt — a protein that kills predatory insects. Anti-GMO activists insist that plants contain Bt are poison … when they aren’t claiming they are ineffective. They do this while pushing Bt-containing sprays as safe and sustainable and attributing harms from Bt sprays to Bt-engineered crops.
Finally, he gets to the golden rice, which we’ve mentioned before. The golden rice could save the eyesight of hundreds of thousands of children. Anti-GMO activists opposed it because it didn’t have enough vitamin A. Then opposed because it had too much.
That summary doesn’t do justice to what’s going on. All along the way, the anti-GMO forces have been … well, lying. They distort studies, they misquote studies, they ignore studies that contradict their opinion. They denounce things as dangerous when they come from genetic engineering but proclaim them safe when they come from other means.
Now you might say, “Hey, what’s the harm in labeling GMO foods?” Here’s the harm:
GMO labels don’t clarify what’s in your food. They don’t address the underlying ingredients—pesticides, toxins, proteins—that supposedly make GMOs harmful. They stigmatize food that’s perfectly safe, and they deflect scrutiny from non-GMO products that have the same disparaged ingredients.
In other words, that safe organic banana might actually have more pesticide, more bacteria and more “toxins” than the supposedly dangerous GMO product. Putting a scarlet letter on GMO products isn’t “informing the public”. It’s trying to scare them into supporting an agenda.
This isn’t a trivial matter. Right now, we are seeing the spread of the UG-99 wheat rust. This rust has the potential to wreck the world’s wheat production, causing mass starvation and economic chaos. We desperately need to engineer strains of wheat that can resist the rust. But if the anti-GMO forces get their way, we’ll only be able to use the slow and less certain process of traditional breeding. Millions could die as a result.
(Saletan, like everyone who defends GMO’s, is being accused of being paid off by Monsanto. Monsanto had a clever reply to this.)
Saletan doesn’t ignore legitimate issues with GMO crops, such as the arms race they are creating in weed control. But those are solvable problems. Solvable problems that are not getting enough attention because the green luddites have us focused on the wrong things.
GMO crops are safe. This is the conclusion of every scientific study that has been done. There are issues around GMO’s that need some work. Let’s concentrate on that.
The more we learn about our solar system, the more interesting it gets:
Could there be volcanoes erupting on Venus?
Scientists think the answer is yes based on the latest data from European Space Agency’s Venus Express, which completed an eight-year mission of Earth’s neighboring planet last year.
Using a near-infrared channel of the spacecraft’s Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC) to map thermal emission from the surface, an international team spotted localized changes in surface brightness between images taken only a few days apart.
“We have now seen several events where a spot on the surface suddenly gets much hotter, and then cools down again,” said Eugene Shalygin from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, lead author of the paper reporting the results in Geophysical Research Letters.
“These four hotspots are located in what are known from radar imagery to be tectonic rift zones, but this is the first time we have detected that they are hot and changing in temperature from day to day. It is the most tantalizing evidence yet for active volcanism.”
We’ve had hints of this for a long time now: changes in the sulphur content of Venus’ atmosphere, heat signatures of potential volcanos, what appear to be warm lava flows. But this is the clearest evidence yet. This follows on recent evidence of a cryovolcano on Enceladus. We are also seeing some interesting features as probes close in on Ceres and Pluto.
A few weeks ago, the internet lit up with stories that eating chocolate could help you lose weight. This week, the other shoe dropped: the story was bullshit:
I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.
Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.
The important thing to note here is that they did not fake their results. What they did was use an analysis method that is used by a lot of junk science studies in the arena of health:
Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.
Think of the measurements as lottery tickets. Each one has a small chance of paying off in the form of a “significant” result that we can spin a story around and sell to the media. The more tickets you buy, the more likely you are to win. We didn’t know exactly what would pan out—the headline could have been that chocolate improves sleep or lowers blood pressure—but we knew our chances of getting at least one “statistically significant” result were pretty good.
Whenever you hear that phrase, it means that some result has a small p value. The letter p seems to have totemic power, but it’s just a way to gauge the signal-to-noise ratio in the data. The conventional cutoff for being “significant” is 0.05, which means that there is just a 5 percent chance that your result is a random fluctuation. The more lottery tickets, the better your chances of getting a false positive. So how many tickets do you need to buy?
P(winning) = 1 – (1 – p)n
With our 18 measurements, we had a 60% chance of getting some“significant” result with p < 0.05. (The measurements weren’t independent, so it could be even higher.) The game was stacked in our favor.
It’s called p-hacking—fiddling with your experimental design and data to push p under 0.05—and it’s a big problem. Most scientists are honest and do it unconsciously. They get negative results, convince themselves they goofed, and repeat the experiment until it “works.” Or they drop “outlier” data points.
You can see this p-hacking illustrated by XKCD here. A similar hack is sometimes referred to as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. The idea is that if you run 100 tests, you will very likely find that one of those tests shows a signal that has a 1% chance of being a coincidence. In fact, as Nate Silver pointed out in his book, if you don’t find that about one in a hundred tests produces a spurious 99% result, you’re doing your statistics wrong.
One of the most infamous was a study in the early 90’s showing that high-tension power lines caused leukemia. Their results was statistically significant. But they tested 800 medical conditions. They were bound to come up with something just by chance.
That’s not to say statistics are useless. It’s to say that they have a context. When you’re testing one specific hypothesis, such as testing if vaccines cause autism, then they are useful. But they can be very deceptive when used in this scattershot approach.
Another illustration is DNA testing. Police in many areas have been doing blind DNA searches of databases to identify suspects in cold cases. When they find their suspect, they claim that the likelihood of a false match is literally one in a million. But these databases have hundreds of thousands of names in them. If you had a specific suspect and other reasons to suspect him, that one in a million stat would mean something. But in a blind search, your odds of finding a match by sheer coincidence is more like one in three.
Bohannon uses the lottery illustration and it’s a perfect one. The odds of any particular person winning the lottery are something like one in tens of millions. But someone is going to beat those odds. Someone always does.
Science — particularly when it comes to health — is littered with these sort of studies: blind searches that find something that then get touted in the media. Vox illustrates it here (point #2). There are statistically significant studies showing both that milk causes and prevents cancer. When you take them all into account, the net risk is basically zero. Of course Vox is in a bit of a glass house, having frequently touted such studies when convenient.
Genetic engineering has been with us for about forty years. During that time, it has helped us develop more effective drugs, drought- and disease-resistant crops, and a barrage of genetic tests that can measure your risk for such things as breast cancer. It has also sparked a lot of opposition from those who fear its power as well as luddite hatred from anti-GMO types who have successfully slowed the implementation of such as things as “the golden rice” and therefore condemned thousands of children to unnecessary blindness.
Things took another step a couple of weeks ago, however, when researchers in China used the new CRISPR technology to modify the genes of non-viable human embryos. Does this mean we are on the verge of a real-life Gattaca? Should we be worried about this?
Francis Collins, the NIH Director, makes the case against allowing this kind of research:
It’s also very hard to identify the need for this kind of embryo manipulation for human purposes. If you’re talking about genetic disease, we have pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which gives couples at risk for genetic disease a chance to avoid that risk without any manipulation of the germline.
Last, there are deep concerns of a philosophical sort, about what it means for human beings to intentionally manipulate their own genomes. If applied broadly and widely, does that result in us being changed into something other than homo sapiens? I don’t think we even have to go to that one to say this is something we shouldn’t do. The safety arguments and lack of medical need trump [these concerns].
Collins gets one thing very wrong in that paragraph: his claim that pre-implantation diagnosis is enough for couples screening for genetic disease. We looked into this when we were doing fertility treatments (Hal 11000 Beta came about the old-fashioned way after fertility failed). Our doctor told us that the diagnosis tech is shaky at best. And with some disorders — such as Down’s — the errors can occur in some cells but not others. So the idea that there is no “need” for this — even assuming we have to show a need to the likes of Collins — is a bit of a reach.1
But Collins hits most of the points probably going through your head: that this kind of research would be unethical, that messing with the human genome is a dangerous road, etc.
[Banning this research] is a mistake, for several reasons.
1. The technology isn’t as mature as reported. Most responses to it are over-reactions.
2. Parents are likely to use genetic technologies in the best interests of their children.
3. Using gene editing to create ‘superhumans’ will be tremendously harder, riskier, and less likely to be embraced by parents than using it to prevent disease.
4. A ban on research funding or clinical application will only worsen safety, inequality, and other concerns expressed about the research.
Part 1 I didn’t find terribly interesting. He’s right that CRISPR can’t create viable genetically modified embryos. But the ethical issues remain. Someday, we probably will have that power.
His other points are much more germane. He points out the human genome, like almost everything in the human body, has many moving parts. There is no single gene for high intelligence or good looks. You would have to make massive changes to many parts of someone’s DNA to, say, make them taller. This is why short parents can have tall kids and vice versa — the genetics are far more complex than, say, hair color.
Manipulating IQ, height, or personality is thus likely to involve making a very large number of genetic changes. Even then, genetic changes are likely to produce a moderate rather than overwhelming impact.
Conversely, for those unlucky enough to be conceived with the wrong genes, a single genetic change could prevent Cystic Fibrosis, or dramatically reduce the odds of Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or cut the risk of heart disease by 30-40%.
Reducing disease is orders of magnitude easier and safer than augmenting abilities.
That addressed Collins’ major point. There is a medical need for this sort of technology; a big one. One that could be filled very easily and at low risk.
Now, it’s possible we could one day have the technology to modify more complex things like height or intelligence. But that technology is decades away at this point, even assuming it is possible at all. It would require an understanding of genetics, and possibly even more importantly, epigenetics, that is a quantum leap beyond where we are now. It’s something to worry about, but not if its means blocking technology that could cure Cystic Fibrosis.
Naam’s third point is that parents are risk-averse. This plays on the first point. Parents might, in theory, want to give their child a genetic leg up. But the best they might face is a possibility of increasing their child’s IQ by ten points at the potential risk of unknown disorders or complications. While I agree with him, it’s certain that some parents will embrace these risks, especially as the technology matures.
Naam’s final point is basically that this is going to happen. And once it does, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. If we ban it here, it will pop up in China. If we get China to ban it, it will pop up in India. If we get India to ban it, it will pop up in South Africa.
This is not something we can unlearn. It’s something we have to deal with. At this stage, given the crudeness of the technology, I am more than happy for the NIH to ban research into genetically engineering humans. But that’s kicking the can down the road. At some point, we will have to decide what we will and will not allow and who gets to decide what risks are and are not worth it.
We have, however, been here before. In the 1970’s, there were efforts to ban the very genetic engineering that has been so beneficial to us and brought us to this point. Supporters of the ban included James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s structure, and Al Gore, supposed science luminary (Watson later admitted he was wrong). They failed, barely. And as it turned out, it was for the best. As P.J. O’Rourke noted twenty years ago in All the Trouble in the World:
Biotechnologists could still come up with something awful by accident, not to mention on purpose. Nature does it all the time. Nature is forever inventing things like the bubonic plague, although whether intentionally or not is a question too deep for this state college graduate. But, in the meantime, we’ve got a four-billion-dollar biotech industry that produces cheap insulin, accurate tests for everything from pregnancy to colon cancer, new vaccines, the diagnostic process that keeps the nation’s blood supply freed of AIDS and hepatitis, and hundreds of other products, with thousands more on the horizon — a small price to pay for an occasional giant sheep.
Nature is forever editing the human genome. The possibility of humans tampering with their own genetics is frightening and I think we should take the potential risks seriously. But, given history, it is much more likely to result in the ability to cut the risk of cancer than to produce a race of Uma Thurman clones.
Genetic engineering did play one role in Hal’s birth. Thanks to a new genetic screening technique, we were able to test Hal at ten weeks for potential trisomies with 99% accuracy.↩</sup
(Again, a bit late. But it’s still Sunday somewhere, right?)
One of the biggest problems facing space travel is that it is ridiculously expensive. Not just in terms of money, but in terms of fuel. Conventional rockets are wonderful but they require enormous mass to generate thrust. One of the reasons the Saturn rockets were so massive was not just because of the enormous amount of fuel needed to leave Earth orbit but the enormous amount needed to lift that enormous amount of fuel. And if you wanted to make a round trip to, say, Mars, you’d have to take gigantic quantities of fuel with you. Your cargo would be a few people, some food and water and vast amounts of rocket fuel.
There are many ways to overcome this. Some of our spacecraft now use ion thrusters, which are efficient but can’t produce the kind of impetus you need to reach orbit. Our spacecraft frequently used gravitational slingshots, essentially borrowing a tiny fraction of a planet’s orbital energy, to reach the outer parts of the solar system. There have been proposals for space elevators and magnetic catapults.
Well, how about warp drives?
Over the last few weeks, people have been getting excited about the idea that NASA has discovered a warp drive, which could open vast areas of the universe for exploration at a tiny fraction of the cost we’re paying. Well, I hate to throw cold water on it but science is nothing if not a cold water thrower:
Last year, the Eagleworks lab—headed up by Harold “Sonny” White—said at a conference on propulsion technologies that they had measured thrust from an electromagnetic propulsion drive. The basic idea behind an EM drive, which is based on a design from a British engineer named Roger Shawyer, is that it can produce thrust by bouncing microwaves around in a cone-shaped metal cavity.
That would be awesome, of course, except it violates one of the fundamental tenets of physics: conservation of momentum. Saying that a drive can produce thrust without propellant going out the backside is kind of like saying that you can drive your car just by sitting in the driver’s seat and pushing on the dashboard.
Now, the last time this idea popped up it made a bunch of noise, which eventually settled down because of some pretty (ahem) obvious flaws in Eagleworks’ experiments. The physicists hadn’t run the tests in a vacuum—essential for measuring a subtle thrust signal. And while they had tested the drive under multiple conditions, one of them was intentionally set up wrong. That setup produced the same thrust signatures as the other conditions, suggesting that the signals the physicists were seeing were all artifacts.
This time around, Eagleworks researchers said they had addressed one of those problems. “We have now confirmed that there is a thrust signature in a hard vacuum,” wrote Eagleworks member Paul March in a forum. It was that post—all the way back in February—that led to most of last week’s hullabaloo.
So, the Eagleworks people have eliminated one of a myriad of problems with their experiment. But many remain, the work is unrefereed and, even if its real, we’re talking about very very tiny amounts of thrust that is barely above the detection threshold.
In other words, it sounds an awful lot like cold fusion. I’m glad someone is researching far-out ideas for changing space travel. But we shouldn’t mistake it for a breakthrough until there’s an actual, you know, breakthrough.
(These are the same guys who circulated an artist’s conception of a warp drive ship that many outlets mistook for an actual design from NASA.)
Right now, there is simply no way to make space travel easy. It would be nice if we could work an alternative. But so far, no luck.
(PS – If you want to see a movie that addresses issues of space travel in an interesting way, check out Interstellar.)
Two stories I want to highlight this week.
The first is some exciting news in cancer research. It’s been over four decades since President Nixon declared a “war on cancer” and while we have many treatments for it, of varying effectiveness, a “cure” is elusive. The biggest reason is that we’ve discovered that cancer is an incredibly complex panoply of conditions, some of which respond to certain therapies, some of which don’t. Last week, we heard about a therapy that’s having stunning results:
The 49-year-old woman had had three melanoma growths removed from her skin, but now the disease was spreading further. A several-centimeter-sized growth under her left breast went deep into her chest wall. Some of the tissue in the tumor was dying because of lack of blood flow.
Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offered her an experimental combination of two drugs: Opdivo and Yervoy, both manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, both among a vanguard of new medicines that boost the immune system to attack tumors. Three weeks later she came back for her second dose.
“She didn’t say anything and when I examined her, I said, ‘Wait a minute!’” says Paul Chapman, the doctor who was treating her. “She said, ‘Yeah, it kind of just dissolved.’”
Where the tumor was before was, literally, a hole – a wound doctors hope will heal with time. Chapman took some fluid from it, and found there were no melanoma cells there. “I’ve been in immunotherapy for a long time, and we’ve talked and fantasized about reactions like this, but I’ve never seen anything this quickly,” he says. He skipped her next dose, and gave her two more before she stopped treatment because of the diarrhea the drug combination was causing. She has no detectable melanoma – amazing for a disease that has long been considered close to untreatable.
The drug is proving very effective, wiping about about 20% of the cancers its encounters. The results from an investigation into lung cancer were so effective that Bristol-Myers Squibb ended the trial early because it was unethical to withhold the drug from placebo patients.
This isn’t a “cure” but it is very promising. There are concerns, because the drug is very expensive ($250,000 per year of treatment). As McArdle points out, the new emphasis on cost effectiveness may limit access to the drug. But even if it only goes to the super rich for now, it’s blazing a path that other less expensive drugs might follow.
And people wonder where the money for prescription drugs goes.
In other news, this week marked the 25th birthday of the Hubble Space Telescope, which they celebrate with this spectacular image of Westerlund 2 (Click to see the full image):
So I’ll kick off what I hope will be a regular feature here: science sunday, where I’ll blog about a recent scientific result I think is interesting. This week, I’ll blog on something a bit close to me.
(It’s a bit late this week since I’ve been chopping down trees, spreading mulch and dealing with a sick kid. But it’s still Sunday somewhere.)
One of the biggest questions in science — indeed in human history — is whether we are alone in the universe. I am convinced that we will soon find evidence of very simple life within our solar system — archaea or some other simple organism in martian fossils or in the seas of Europa, Ganymede or Titan. We have now detected thousands of planets beyond our solar system, including a number in the “goldilocks zone” where liquid water can exist. But detecting intelligent life is way beyond our current capabilities.
It might actually be possible to detect a sufficiently advanced civilization. SETI has looked in the radio for a long time with no results. But radio communication may be a short-lived phase for alien civilizations. What may be more plausible is looking for heat signatures:
One of the largest-ever searches for distant alien empires has scoured 100,000 galaxies for signs of suspicious infrared activity and found… nothing.
The study by Penn State used data from Nasa’s Wise (“Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer”) orbiting observatory to scour far-off galaxies for radiation which, astronomers theorise, would likely be produced if a civilisation were powerful enough to colonise thousands of stars.
The theory that aliens might be visible on a galactic scale is based on the ideas of physicist Freeman Dyson, who suggested in the 1960s that galactic civilisations would almost by definition use most of the starlight in their galaxy for their own ends. This should be detectable using mid-infrared telescopes. That wasn’t possible when Dyson’s theory emerged, but Nasa’s Wise telescope does have the ability to make close measurements for thousands of galaxies, and so allow scientists to study the data for telltale signs of life.
No, they didn’t find it. But scientists have found 50 galaxies with unusual radiation signatures, indicating something strange is happening inside many distant collections of stars — even if it’s nothing to do with aliens at all.
There have been a few other studies looking for the radiation signatures of nearby Dyson Spheres but there haven’t been any hints of anything yet.
An alien species would have had to have been around for millions of years for us to see the effects of their capturing vast amounts of starlight. So this is the extreme end of the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence. But with millions of galaxies out there, there’s at least a chance we could find one. It’s a million to one shot but if it ever paid off it would be an incredible discovery. And even it doesn’t, we’ll still learn a lot about galaxies.
Cause someone has just found that there is a gene for excessive alcohol consumption:
UK researchers have discovered a gene that regulates alcohol consumption and when faulty can cause excessive drinking. They have also identified the mechanism underlying this phenomenon.
The study showed that normal mice show no interest in alcohol and drink little or no alcohol when offered a free choice between a bottle of water and a bottle of diluted alcohol.
However, mice with a genetic mutation to the gene Gabrb1 overwhelmingly preferred drinking alcohol over water, choosing to consume almost 85% of their daily fluid as drinks containing alcohol.
The consortium of researchers from five UK universities – Imperial College London, Newcastle University, Sussex University, University College London and University of Dundee – and the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit (MGU) at Harwell, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust and ERAB, publish their findings today in Nature Communications.
So alcoholics may be genetically predisposed to it? What’s next? A gene that makes you like midgit donkey pron?
In the past few weeks, there have been some rumblings about imposing new criteria on scientific research grants. In particular, attention has been brought to the National Science Foundation, where Lamar Smith, having identified a number of NSF programs that he considers to be frivolous, has proposed new criteria, including:
[that the research is] in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
You guys know I’m in astrophysics and you can imagine that I’m not too keen on this idea. I consider the NSF — indeed most of our scientific programs — to be a model of how other government agencies should be run. Here’s how a proposal works in NSF world:
1) The NSF puts out a call for proposals and scientists around the country submit them. The proposals are then evaluated by other scientists who grade them by scientific merit and feasibility. Attainable measurable goals are an important part of any proposal.
2) NSF goes down the list, funding things until they are out of money. Where they can trim budgets, they do. This year, because of the sequester, they only funded about the top 10% of proposals. Usually it’s a bit more than that, but always well shy of a majority. Every year, highly ranked proposals are unfunded simply because NSF stays within their budget.
3) Progress on any proposal is regularly monitored. In fact, not all of the money is released right away. Getting the full funding is dependent on making progress, meeting stated goals and publishing. If progress is not made, the program may be cancelled.
4) If you run over budget, that is usually tough shit (unless you are “too big to fail”).
5) At the end of the program, a final report is submitted. The success of future proposals will be heavily dependent on your performance. You don’t meet the goals, you won’t get funded.
You can contrast this to the usual subsidy programs our government runs where failure is seen as being the result of not having enough money. If NSF were run like the rest of our government, we’d still be funding research into the luminiferous aether.
That model may not be perfect but is massively preferable to having Congress look over the NSF’s shoulder. The problem here is illustrated in a post Ezra Klein did last week about the van Halen principle of politics: that ideas that sounds stupid and idiotic often aren’t once you get to know what they’re about.
When it comes to science, Congress is all about violating the van Halen principle, frequently criticizing research that sounds funny or stupid but is actually reasonable. My favorite example was in the 90’s when a Congressman criticized funding of ATM research without realizing that he was talking about Asynchronous Transfer Modules not Automated Teller Machines.
“But, Hal!” you say, “Surely we can agree that research into, say, duck genitalia is a waste?” Well, not really:
Male ducks force copulations on females, and males and females are engaged in a genital arms race with surprising consequences. Male ducks have elaborate corkscrew-shaped penises, the length of which correlates with the degree of forced copulation males impose on female ducks. Females are often unable to escape male coercion, but they have evolved vaginal morphology that makes it difficult for males to inseminate females close to the sites of fertilization and sperm storage. Males have counterclockwise spiraling penises, while females have clockwise spiraling vaginas and blind pockets that prevent full eversion of the male penis.
Our latest study examined how the presence of other males influences genital morphology. My colleagues and I found that it does so to an amazing degree, demonstrating that male competition is a driving force behind these male traits that can be harmful to females. The fact that this grant was funded, after the careful scrutiny of many scientists and NSF administrators, reflects the fact that this research is grounded in solid theory and that the project was viewed as having the potential to move science forward (and it has), as well as fascinate and engage the public. The research has been reported on positively by hundreds of news sites in recent years, even Fox news. Most of the grant money was spent on salaries, putting money back into the economy.
More important than the merits of any particular piece of research is the value of simply poking around and glimpsing the engines of the universe. You never know, a priori, what insights scientific research is going to produce. Here is a story from last year about how research into jellyfish produced a method for tracking HIV, cancer and other diseases. To quote me:
Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.
It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.
It would be nice if someone could just submit a grant to cure cancer or invent clean energy. But that’s not how science works. Science works by poking around and asking questions. Discoveries and breakthroughs — especially on complex issues like health and energy — are made through many discoveries and often sideways from seemingly unrelated disciplines. It’s fine to ask what the practical use of a piece of funded research is. But it’s dangerous to start insisting that everything be oriented toward a specific and narrow set of goals. You are closing off entire areas of research and discovery.
In Phil Plait’s post linked above, he cites Lysenkoism as an example of what happens when we politicize science in the name of advancing the national interest. I think it’s worth remembering what that was all about:
Lysenkoism or Lysenko-Michurinism was the centralized political control exercised over genetics and agriculture by Trofim Lysenko and his followers. Lysenko was the director of the Soviet Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenkoism began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.
Lysenkoism was built on theories of the heritability of acquired characteristics that Lysenko named “Michurinism”. These theories depart from accepted evolutionary theory and Mendelian inheritance.
Lysenkoism set back Soviet science by decades and directly contributed to the continual food shortages and starvation that killed millions. Its tendrils still extend to the modern Western world, where scientists want to pretend that genetics doesn’t matter. It’s descendent is the anti-GMO movement which has delayed the use of genetically-modified crops resulting in starvation and malnutrition in millions of people.
It would be silly to claim that banning research into duck genitalia is going to cause starvation (although equally silly to claim it will balance the budget). But it is the camel’s nose in the tent. And there are a lot of camels who want into the tent of controlling science. Climate research has been a favorite whipping boy for some Republicans. Bobby Jindal bizarrely criticized research into volcanos. Sarah Palin slammed fruit fly research — fruit fly research being the keystone to much of our understanding of genetics.
Nor is this confined to conservatives. Environmentalists are frequent critics of research into nuclear power and genetically modified crops (Greenpeace and other have stated many times that they want funding for ITER terminated). Just this week, an article showed that the majority of Americans perceive violence as rising even as it has fallen. Gun violence alone is down 69%. The response of the liberals blogs to this has been to either a) ignore it, b) harp on the fact that gun violence has declined slightly more slowly than other crime or c) claim the study is being misrepresented with specifying how.
In short, it’s not just duck dicks that are at risk. Once you open this door, any research that crosses someone as silly or politically incorrect is in jeopardy regardless of its actual merit.
If you want to cut spending on science — and I think it’s a stupid place to start — cut NSF’s overall budget. The last thing you want is a bunch of lawyers looking through NSF’s projects and booting studies that sound funny to them.
Science and scientists should be accountable to the public. As a scientist who has been funded by NSF grants and who has won NASA grants, I take my duties to report progress and engage in public outreach seriously as does almost everyone I’ve ever worked with. We publish papers, we submit reports, we give talks, we send out press releases and we do public events not just to stroke our own egos but to let the public know what their money is being used for. They have a right to know, no matter how small the funding may be. In fact, NSF proposals require a “lay summary” to be made available to the public.
But the proper place to hold scientists accountable for their work is the place that has worked pretty damned for over six decades: with the transparent peer review process that holds scientific programs to their promises and defunds scientist who aren’t doing what they promised. It may not be perfect; you can’t swing a dead cat in a science department without hitting someone who thinks his grant proposal was unfairly declined. But it’s better than having 535 know-it-all jackanapes looking over our shoulders.
Post Scriptum: In related news, the Republicans want to substantially narrow the Census Bureau’s function, including killing the American Community Survey. This has been a whipping boy for some conservative and libertarians who want the census bureau to just count heads and nothing else. I understand the inclination. But they don’t seem to realize that the bill, as written, would basically eliminate almost all economic information. Obama could literally claim an unemployment rate of whatever he wants.
And these guys want to make decisions about science funding?