Thursday, February 12, 2004

Science Policy Questions
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good:

1. Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004
Scientists Develop New Hydrogen Reactor
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Researchers said Thursday that for the first time, they have produced hydrogen from ethanol in a prototype reactor small enough and efficient enough to heat small homes and power cars.  The development could help open the way for cleaner-burning technology at home and on the road.  Current methods of producing hydrogen from ethanol require large refineries and copious amounts of fossil fuels, the University of Minnesota researchers said.  The reactor is a relatively tiny 2-foot-high apparatus of tubes and wires that creates hydrogen from corn-based ethanol. A fuel cell, which acts like a battery, then generates power.

``This points to a way to make renewable hydrogen that may be economical and available,'' said Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineer who led the study. The work was outlined in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

2. Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004
Busy Rovers Back to Work on Mars
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - The Mars rover Spirit got moving again Thursday after an interruption caused by cold, and controllers figured out how to drive its twin, Opportunity, so that it won't slip on the sloping martian terrain.

``I'm very pleased to report that we have two very busy rovers on the surface of Mars,'' said Art Thompson, a robotics engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA had been unable to send commands to Spirit through its high-gain antenna Tuesday after the rover's mast unexpectedly cast a frigid shadow over the motors that are used to position the lollipop-shaped antenna and keep it oriented toward Earth. The cold disabled the motors.  As a result, Spirit remained parked for a day instead of continuing its journey toward a crater.  Eventually, the sun warmed the motors, and they resumed working, enabling NASA to order Spirit to resume its trek Thursday. It covered about 79 feet.

``So we're basically back on track,'' Thompson said.  Spirit has shown no lingering effects from a computer memory problem that earlier left it stalled close to its lander platform, Thompson said, pronouncing the rover ``in outstanding health.''

3.  February 12, 2004
Intel Reports a Research Leap to a Faster Chip
AN FRANCISCO, Feb. 11 - Intel scientists will announce on Thursday that they have built a prototype of a silicon chip that can switch light on and off like electricity, blurring the line between computing and communications and bringing sweeping changes to the way digital information and entertainment are delivered.  For the first time, Intel researchers said, they have shown that ultra-high-speed fiber optic equipment can be produced at the equivalent of low-cost personal computer industry prices. Industry executives said the advance could lead to commercial products by the end of the decade.  As the costs of communicating in cyberspace falls, the researchers said, existing barriers to creating fundamentally new kinds of digital machines capable of far greater performance, and not limited by physical distance, should disappear.  The advance, described in a paper to be published Thursday in the journal Nature, suggests that Intel, as the world's largest chip maker, is on the verge of developing the technology to move into lucrative new telecommunications markets.

The Bad:
Scanning my blog aggregator, I notice that the presidential primary/causus results, Iraq,  the Bush military service record, the Plame scandal, the Senate computer file scandal, and GOP campaign strategy seem to be the most popular topics.  Not that I can realistically sample millions of blogs.  I don't read the personal-diary type blogs, or the ones that are basically flame-fests. 

There is another topic that comes up sporadically, that I would like to highlight here.  That is the topic of science policy in the Federal Government.  There now is a site called http://www.scienceinpolicy.org  that points out some of the problems that are apparent in the Government's application of the efforts of scientists.  Chris Mooney  does a nice job elaborating on the issue in two posts (1 2).  I found reference to these sites on Carl Zimmer's site, The Loom.  This topic was mentioned on the American Prospect Online site in an article  by Nick Confessore.  More information is at the American Footprint  site.  Related issues are raised here, by Kevin Drum at Calpundit.  Additional issues pertaining to science policy can be found in a report  (PDF) by Rep. Waxman.   Finally, there is an interesting article by Peter Sean Bradley on Lex Communis  regarding an attempt by the Administration to obstruct archeological research.  I would like to expand on news and blog articles, and pull together their conclusions along with those in Rep. Waxman's report.

The Calpundit article points out that the Data Quality Act increases the influence of industry representatives when decisions are made regarding which research proposals deserve funding.  The scienceinpolicy.org site expresses concern about environmental science, specifically. 

The first Chris Mooney article discusses, among other things, the legislation HR 1662  (PDF).  This is an attempt to rewrite part of the Endangered Species Act.  HR 1662 currently is sitting in committee, awaiting comment from the Dept. of Interior, which was requested in April 2003.  So no one is in a hurry to get it passed.  I suspect that the Administration does not need another controversy in this election year, and they certainly do not want environmental issues to become part of the campaign debate.  The differences that HR 1662 would make to the ESA are summarized in a side-by-side table  on Rep. Greg Walden's official House website.  This is one of those pieces of legislation that looks good on the surface, but is deeply flawed in a way that only an expert can see.  The specific problems are documented in the House testimony  by David Michaels, Ph.D., MPH:

[...]I am here to tell you that prescriptive proposals that attempt to manage the way
government policy-makers use and interpret scientific data have the potential to damage
the leading source of scientific information the world has ever seen: the US system of
science research and education the American scientific enterprise.

I am going to briefly address two of these proposals: HR 16621, Congressman Walden’s
proposed legislation, and the White House’s “Proposed Bulletin on Peer Review and
Information Quality.”2 I will conclude with a proposal to improve the quality of science
used in regulation.

Both are based on the flawed premise that peer review is the mechanism through which
the validity of scientific information is assured. The scientific enterprise involves
observation, experimentation, publication, dissemination and application, in repeated
cycles. Peer review is but one component of this. Peer review used by scientific journals
is not the same as the scientific reviews conducted by many agencies, and this is how it
should be. [...]

The authors of HR 1662 and the White House Peer Review proposal are seeking to
impose a science audit, and are erroneously calling it peer review. [...]

We all agree that scientific policy should be based on the best scientific data available.
The Congress of the United States is infinitely wise in many ways, but it is scientists, not
legislators, who should determine what the best scientific data are. [...]

Dr. Michaels goes on to address the Office of Management and Budget's proposals   (PDF) for modifying the peer review process that is used when scientific data are being used to shape public policy.  This is something that I blogged about at length on 1/28/2004.  Dr. Michaels raises a number of specific objects to the modification of the peer review process, and summarizes as follows:

It appears that the White House and other opponents of certain federal regulatory
programs are trying to stack the deck, to shape the science to fit the desired outcome,
under the plea for “Sound Science”. But the Science community sees through this, and
recognizes this isn’t an argument over science; it is an argument over policy.

The second Chris Mooney article, and the American Footprint article, includes a review of a hearing  held by the congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on February 4, 2004.  He finds that the majority of testimony was given by pro-industry specialists.  He states: "today's hearing did not include a single climate scientist whose views are reasonably representative of mainstream scientific opinion."

Rep. Waxman's report, entitled Politics and Science in the Bush Administration, (hyperlink is in the second paragraph of this article) lists numerous specific examples of the inappropriate use of scientific data, manipulation of appointments and committees, suppression of public health information, and suppression of data that would be adverse to industries.  The entire report is interesting to read, and the examples are nicely documented in a manner that should relieve any concern about the potential political bias of the report. 

The article on Lex Communis describes an incident in which the Army Corps of Engineers buried an archeological site.  As Mr. Bradley is a lawyer, the article is mostly about the legal aspects of the incident.  Still, he has an understanding of the scientific issues:

[...]The case involved the ability of scientists to study the "Kennewick Man." The subject of the dispute centers around the approximate nine thousand year old remains of a human with features more typical of Europeans than Asians[...]

Obviously, what was at stake was some kind of ideological view that requires that Native Americans not have European antecedents. And, because of that, the government was willing to stifle and suppress scientific research.[...]

Reflect on that for a second - the United States government dumped tons of rubble on a scientific site that could have proven invaluable in learning about the origins of man in North America.[...]

Pulling together this material and my 1/28/2004  post, the following list is derived:
  1. Modifications to the ESA using HR 1662, based on distortions of scientific evidence
  2. Modifications to the EPA using S 485, based on distortions of scientific evidence
  3. Modifications to the peer review process using proposed bulletin under Executive Order No. 12866
  4. Modifications to the process of reviewing funding requests using the Data Quality Act
  5. Suppression of unfavorable public health information at HHS
  6. Suppression of condom use information at CDC
  7. Suppression of information about global warming by the EPA
  8. Deletion of breast cancer risk information from the NIH website
  9. Misrepresentation of the science relating to safer sex education
  10. Misguided suppression of stem cell research
  11. Distortion of the results of a physician survey in a report to the FDA
  12. Inappropriate, politically-motivated appointments to positions at CDC, HHS, Reproductive Health Advisory Committee, and the National Council on Drug Abuse
  13. Misleading congressional testimony regarding ANWR
  14. Suppression of Interior Dept. data on the impact of damage to wetlands
  15. Blocking a scientific publication regarding farming practices that contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria
  16. increased scrutiny of any research grant requests using the words “gay” or “men who sleep with men.”
  17. Misleading Senate testimony on the science related to the proposed antiballistic missile system
  18. Suppression of EPA data on the environmental hazards posed by an oil drilling method: hydraulic fracturing
  19. Covering an archeological site to suppress research or the origin of humans
The Ugly:
I actually did not include everything I have to say on the subject, since there are other instances of misuse of science, suppression of science, or diversion of funding for science that were reported to me in confidence.  The items on the list above are things I learned in a couple of hours browsing the web.  Admittedly, most of this did not come directly from primary sources.  But, the secondary sources (news sites, congressional sites, and blogs) generally are well documented and are derived from freely available information.  Even if there are some points that are not entirely correct, it certainly appears that there is a systematic, deliberate, and highly partisan effort to misuse the efforts of well-meaning scientists to serve crass political goals.  While it is true that interested, skilled citizens with Internet access are able to find much of the information that was suppressed, the fact is that most people do not have the time or technical expertise needed to do so.  For example, the abstracts of most medical publications can be found on any Medline site, such as PubMed (thanks to Al Gore).  But in many cases, it takes a knowledge of medical terminology, and an understanding of the structure of the medical literature base, to sort through the millions of articles to find what you are looking for.  It also helps to have a mastery of Boolean logic.  The uglier stuff is the stuff that individuals really can't do anything about.  If the government decides to stop funding, say, research on creative teaching methods, in favor of increased standardized testing, there really is not any opportunity for citizen input.  If the FDA hears misleading testimony and decides to allow expanded direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medication, millions of unsuspecting viewers will see these ads and assume that the government was looking out for their best interest when it gave the approval.  One could argue that most of these ads say something like "ask your doctor."  That shifts the responsibility to the physician to provide accurate information.  Although this is not entirely a bad thing, imagine how this could work in a typical situation: A consumer sees an ad, and dutifully makes an appointment.  The doctor is busy; he or she has budgeted perhaps five or 7.5 minutes for the visit.  A patient on Medicaid walks in and asks for a specific drug X.  The doctor knows that there is another drug Y, available as a generic, that will do the same thing for less than half the cost.  The doctor starts to explain.  The patient has a few questions.  They start to run out of time.  Before long, the patient walks out for a prescription for drug X.  I suppose that is good for business, but the irony is that it drives up the expenses to Medicaid.  So your tax dollars subsidize the pharmaceutical industry.  And some poor elderly person, stuck with an inadequate Medicare drug benefit, ends up going without a necessary medication as a result; the reason being that the Medicaid money has been wasted, so there is less funding available for Medicare.  Not exactly the intended consequence, is it?  This is something that would not be obvious to someone who does not know all the ins and outs of the health industry, and it can't be discovered with a simple Internet search.  Meanwhile, oil companies are injecting benzene into the ground in order to extract oil.  And people end up with drinking water that has benzene in it.  And getting liver failure.  And needing a transplant.  Which costs about a gazillion dollars.  That's the really Ugly part of it. 

Proper application of science can be a great help in the development of sound public policy.  But you can't have politicians writing the rules that say how science is to be applied.  You end up with lies being told to the very people who are paying the politicians to perform a public service.  And you get misguided policy that does the opposite of what it is intended to do.
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