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Drug Company Funding Taints Published Medical Research

Science provide the opportunity for us to achieve great benefits for society. However, especially in medical research money can make what are already very difficult judgments even less reliable. Add that to a very poor understanding of science in those we elect and you have a dangerous combination. That combination is one of the largest risks we face and need to manage better. I wish we would elect people with a less pitiful appreciation for science but that doesn’t seem likely. That makes doing a better job of managing the conflicts of interest money puts into our current medical research a top priority.

How Drug Company Money Is Undermining Science by Charles Seife

In the past few years the pharmaceutical industry has come up with many ways to funnel large sums of money—enough sometimes to put a child through college—into the pockets of independent medical researchers who are doing work that bears, directly or indirectly, on the drugs these firms are making and marketing. The problem is not just with the drug companies and the researchers but with the whole system—the granting institutions, the research labs, the journals, the professional societies, and so forth. No one is providing the checks and balances necessary to avoid conflicts.

Peer-reviewed journals are littered with studies showing how drug industry money is subtly undermining scientific objectivity. A 2009 study in Cancer showed that participants somehow survived longer when a study’s authors had conflicts of interest than when the authors were clean. A 1998 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found a “strong association” between researchers’ conclusions about the safety of calcium channel blockers, a class of drugs used to reduce blood pressure, and their financial relationships with the firms producing the drugs.

Most of those in the system have an interest in minimizing an effort to clean this up. It is just more work they don’t want to do. Or it goes directly against their interest (drug companies that want to achieve favorable opinions by buying influence). The main political message in the USA for a couple decades has been to reduce regulation. Allowing research that is tainted because you find regulation politically undesirable is a bad idea. People that understand science and how complex medical research is appreciate this.

Sadly when we elect people that by and large are scientifically illiterate they don’t understand the risks of the dangerous practices they allow. Even if they were scientifically illiterate but understood their ignorance they could do a decent job by getting scientific consultation from experts but they don’t (to an extent they listen to the scientists that those that give them lots of money tell them to which does help make sure those giving the politicians cash have their interests served but it is not a good way to create policy with the necessary scientific thinking needed today).

Related: Problems with the Existing Funding System for Medical ResearchMedical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof)Merck and Elsevier Publish Phony Peer-Review JournalAnti-Science PoliticsStand with Science, Late is Better than Never

Smoking Bans at Work and Public Places Result in Significant Drops in Hospitalization for Heart Attacks, Strokes and Asthma.

Laws that end smoking at work and other public places result in significantly fewer hospitalizations for heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other respiratory conditions, a new UCSF analysis has found.

The research provides evidence that smoke-free laws that cover workplaces, restaurants and bars have the biggest impacts on hospitalizations, reduce health care costs and also raise quality of life, the researchers said. The research is published in closed science journal; for an “association” (when you act as though your focus is just growing your income I have trouble seeing the claim for being an association as legitimate) to do that is particularly pitiful. Adding to the sad commentary on the lack of respect for open scient this is research done by a “public” university with grants from the federal government. So sad how little some that should care about science do when it conflicts with their outdated notions of how to publicize research. We really should not tolerate such behavior.

“The public, health professionals, and policy makers need to understand that including exemptions and loopholes in legislation — such as exempting casinos — condemns more people to end up in emergency rooms,” said senior author Stanton A. Glantz, UCSF professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF. “These unnecessary hospitalizations are the real cost of failing to enact comprehensive smoke-free legislation,” he said.

The inquiry consisted of a meta-analysis of 45 studies published prior to Nov. 30, 2011. Altogether, the research covered 33 different smoke-free-laws in cities and states around the United States as well as several countries, including New Zealand and Germany. The laws variously prohibit smoking in such public spots as restaurants, bars, and the workplace.

The authors found that comprehensive smoke-free laws were followed rapidly by significantly lower rates of hospital admissions than before the laws went into force:

  • A 15% drop in heart attack hospitalizations;
  • A 16% drop in stroke hospitalizations;
  • A 24% drop in hospitalizations for respiratory diseases including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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2011 MacArthur Fellows

2011 MacArthur Fellows

Elodie Ghedin (in video) is a biomedical researcher who is harnessing the power of genomic sequencing techniques to generate critical insights about human pathogens. A major focus of her work has been parasites that cause diseases endemic to tropical climates, such as leishmaniasis, sleeping sickness, Chagas disease, elephantiasis, and river blindness.

More scientists given the $500,000 award: Markus Greiner, Condensed Matter Physicist, Harvard University; Sarah Otto, Evolutionary Geneticist, University of British Columbia; Shwetak Patel, Sensor Technologist & Computer Scientist, University of Washington; Kevin Guskiewicz, Department of Exercise & Sport Science, University of North Carolina; Melanie Sanford, Organometallic Chemist, University of Michigan; Matthew Nock, Clinical Psychologist, Harvard University; Yukiko Yamashita, Developmental Biologist, University of Michigan; William Seeley, Neurologist, University of California, San Francisco.

Related: 2008 MacArthur FellowsPresidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and EngineersNew Physics Prize Gives 9 Physicists $3 million Each2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Largest Google Summer of Code Ever

Google summer of code allows college students to work on open source software projects during the summer and get a $5,000 stipend from Google.

Google Summer of Code 2012 by the Numbers

This 8th year of Google Summer of Code is the largest yet. More mentoring organizations received more applications from more students than ever before. We received a record number of applications – 6685 – from 4258 students from 98 countries to work with the 180 selected mentoring organizations.

We also accepted more students this year: 1,212 from 69 countries. This year India supplied the largest number of students, 227.

USA has 172 students, Germany 72, Russia 56 and China 45. This year set the highest percentage of women (self identified) yet. Guess what percentage. If you guessed 8.3% you are right.

Projects from the following organizations/software projects are included this year: Apache Software Foundation, Debian Project, Electronic Frontier Foundation/The Tor Project, GIMP, haskell.org, The JRuby Project, OpenStreetMap, Python Software Foundation, R project for statistical computing, Twitter, Wikimedia Foundation.

Google provides a stipend of 5,000 USD to the student and $500 to the mentoring organization. That puts Google’s support at over $6,500,000 this year.

Related: Google Summer of Code is Accepting Applications (2011)Google Summer of Code 2009Google Summer of Code 2007

Using Nanocomposites to Improve Dental Filling Performance

After a dentist drills out a decayed tooth, the cavity still contains residual bacteria. Professor Huakun (Hockin) Xu says it is not possible for a dentist to remove all the damaged tissue, so it’s important to neutralize the harmful effects of the bacteria, which is just what the new nanocomposites are able to do.

Rather than just limiting decay with conventional fillings, the new composite he has developed is a revolutionary dental weapon to control harmful bacteria, which co-exist in the natural colony of microorganisms in the mouth.

“Tooth decay means that the mineral content in the tooth has been dissolved by the organic acids secreted by bacteria residing in biofilms or plaques on the tooth surface. These organisms convert carbohydrates to acids that decrease the minerals in the tooth structure,” says Xu, director of the Division of Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering in the School’s Department of Endodontics, Prosthodontics and Operative Dentistry.

The researchers also have built antibacterial agents into primer used first by dentists to prepare a drilled-out cavity and into adhesives that dentists spread into the cavity to make a filling stick tight to the tissue of the tooth. “The reason we want to get the antibacterial agents also into primers and adhesives is that these are the first things that cover the internal surfaces of the tooth cavity and flow into tiny dental tubules inside the tooth,” says Xu.

The main reason for failures in tooth restorations, says Xu, is secondary caries or decay at the restoration margins. Applying the new primer and adhesive will kill the residual bacteria, he says.

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Harvard Steps Up Defense Against Abusive Journal Publishers

For a decade journals have been trying to continue a business model that was defensible in a new world where it is not. They have becoming increasing abusive with even more outrageous fees than they were already charging. As I said years ago it has become obvious they are enemies of science and should be treated as such. The time to find mutual beneficial solution past years ago.

Harvard University says it can’t afford journal publishers’ prices

Exasperated by rising subscription costs charged by academic publishers, Harvard University has encouraged its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls.

A memo from Harvard Library to the university’s 2,100 teaching and research staff called for action after warning it could no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers, which bill the library around $3.5m a year.

he memo from Harvard’s faculty advisory council said major publishers had created an “untenable situation” at the university by making scholarly interaction “fiscally unsustainable” and “academically restrictive”, while drawing profits of 35% or more. Prices for online access to articles from two major publishers have increased 145% over the past six years, with some journals costing as much as $40,000, the memo said.

More than 10,000 academics have already joined a boycott of Elsevier, the huge Dutch publisher, in protest at its journal pricing and access policies. Many university libraries pay more than half of their journal budgets to the publishers Elsevier, Springer and Wiley.

Research Libraries UK negotiated new contracts with Elsevier and Wiley last year after the group threatened to cancel large subscriptions to the publishers. The new deal, organised on behalf of 30 member libraries, is expected to save UK institutions more than £20m.

These journals have continuously engaged in bad practices. Scientists should publish work in ways that enrich the scientific community not ways that starve the scientific commons and enrich a few publishers that are doing everything they can to hold back information sharing.

In 2008 Harvard’s liberal arts faculty voted to make their research open source.

Related: Fields Medalist Tim Gowers Takes Action To Stop Cooperating with Anti-Open Science CartelScience Commons: Making Scientific Research Re-usefulMIT Faculty Open Access to Their Scholarly ArticlesMerck and Elsevier Publish Phony Peer-Review JournalOpen Access Journal Wars

Lean Science: Using Cheap Robots to Aid Research

Fun video showing how scientists use Lego Mindstorm robots to aid research into creating artificial bones. Lego Mindstorm robots are useful at a very reasonable price.

The webcast also includes this practical quote from Michelle Oyen, lecturer in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University: “without your bones you would be a pile of goo lying on the floor.”

The thinking discussed in the webcast echos the lean manufacturing principles discussed in the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog: finding good solutions to aid people in doing their jobs. The type of custom solutions they discuss here are great.

This type of use of technology is great. One of the problems we often see with technology solutions though is when they are imposed on the workplace in a way that doesn’t aid people. There is a big difference between what Toyota does (using robots to make people’s jobs easier) and what others do in trying to copy Toyota (using robots to eliminate jobs). Lean manufacturing stressed the importance of using brainpower people bring to work every day. You want to use technology to enable people. These scientists understand that. Unfortunately many managers don’t.

Related: Lego Mindstorms Robots Solving: Sudoku and Rubik’s CubeOpen Source for LEGO MindstormsRubick’s Cube Solving Lego Mindstorms Robot

Intel Science Talent Search 2012 Awardees

Nithin Tumma, whose research could lead to less toxic and more effective breast cancer treatments, received the top award of $100,000 at the Intel Science Talent Search 2012, a program of Society for Science & the Public. Other finalists from across the U.S. took home additional awards totaling $530,000.

The Intel Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious pre-college science and math competition, recognizes 40 high school seniors who are poised to be the next leaders in innovation and help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Nithin Tumma, 17, of Fort Gratiot, Mich., won the top award of $100,000 from the Intel Foundation for his research, which could lead to more direct, targeted, effective and less toxic breast cancer treatments. He analyzed the molecular mechanisms in cancer cells and found that by inhibiting certain proteins, we may be able to slow the growth of cancer cells and decrease their malignancy. Nithin is first in his class, a varsity tennis player and a volunteer for the Port Huron Museum, where he started a restoration effort for historical and cultural landmarks.

Second place honors and $75,000 went to Andrey Sushko, 17, of Richland, Wash., for his development of a tiny motor, only 7 mm (almost 1/4 inch) in diameter, which uses the surface tension of water to turn its shaft. Born in Russia, Andrey worked from home to create his miniature motor, which could pave the way for other micro-robotic devices. Andrey, a long-time builder of small boats, recently filed for a Guinness World Record for the smallest radio-controlled sailing yacht.

Third place honors and $50,000 went to Mimi Yen, 17, of Brooklyn, N.Y., for her study of evolution and genetics, which focuses on microscopic worms, specifically looking at their sex habits and hermaphrodite tendencies. Mimi believes that through research such as hers, we may better understand the genes that contribute to behavioral variations in humans. Mimi was born in Honduras and is fluent in Cantonese. She plays French horn and volunteers to prepare and deliver meals to people with serious illnesses.

These finalists join the ranks of other notable Science Talent Search alumni who over the past 70 years have gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals, four National Medals of Science, 11 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships and even an Academy Award for Best Actress.

“We invest in America’s future when we recognize the innovative achievements of our nation’s brightest young minds,” said Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini. “Hands-on experience with math and science, such as that required of Intel Science Talent Search finalists, encourages young people to think critically, solve problems and understand the world around them. Rather than simply memorizing facts and formulas, or repeating experiments with known outcomes, this competition engages students in an exciting way and provides a deeper level of understanding in such important but challenging subjects.”

Related: Intel Science and Engineering Fair 2009 WebcastsGirls Sweep Top Honors at Siemens Competition in Math, Science and TechnologyIntel International Science and Engineering Fair Awards 2006

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Stand with Science – Late is Better than Never

The USA public has made very bad decisions in who to send to Washington DC to spend our money (and the money of our children and grandchildren). We have wasted hundreds of billions that could have been spent more wisely. I happen to think investing in science and engineering is important for a societies economic health. The problem the USA has is we have chosen to waste lots of money for decades, at some point you run out of money (yes the USA government doesn’t really, as they can print it, but essentially they do – in practical terms).

I would certainly eliminate tax breaks for trust fund babies and trust fund grandchildren (while your grandchildren are going to be left holding the bag for the spending those elected by us, the grandchildren of the rich often get huge trust funds with no taxes being paid at all). But most of the people we have elected want to give trust fund babies huge payoffs. I would cut much spending in government – spending 5% less in 2020 than we did this year would be fine with me. But we don’t elect people that support that. I would support not adding new extensions to tax cuts sold with false claims and again supported by those we continue to elect. I wouldn’t allow the financial industry subverting of markets. But again we elect people that do allow that. And when the bill comes due for letting them take tens and hundreds of millions in individual profits in the good years, we can either let the economy go into a depression (maybe) or spend hundreds of billions to trillions bailing out those institutions our politicians let threaten the economy.

It might not seem fair, but there are consequences to allowing our political system to waste huge amounts of money paying of special interests for decades. And investing in science and engineering has been a casualty and will likely continue to be. Eventually you run out of money, even for the stuff that matters. Trying to fight for politicians that will put the interests of the country ahead of their donors is not something you can do effectively only when your interests are directly threatened. At that point things may already be too bad to be saved.

I have been writing about the failed political system for quite awhile now. I wrote awhile back that Hillary Clinton’s idea to tripple the number of GRFP awards was something I thought was very smart economically. But even then I questioned if we could afford it, if we refused to do anything else different (just adding new spending isn’t what the country needed).

Even in the state the politicians we continue to elect (we elect the same people election after election – there is no confusion about what they will do) we can debate what to cut and for something we spend so little on as investing science and engineering we can even easily increase that spending and not have any real impact on cutting overall spending. But those we have elected don’t show much interest in investing in science and engineering overall.

The USA continues to invest a good deal in science and engineering. But the difference in focus today versus the 1960’s is dramatic. The USA will continue to do well in the realm of science. The advantages gained over decades leave us in a hugely beneficial position – and one that takes other countries decades to catch up to. Now some countries have been working on that for decades now, and are doing very well. China, hasn’t been at it quite as long but has been making amazingly fast progress (similar to the amazing economic story).

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Robot Prison Guards in South Korea

photo of robot prison guard

Robotic prison wardens to patrol South Korean prison

The one-month trial will cost 1bn won (£554,000) and is being sponsored by the South Korean government. It is the latest in a series of investments made by the state to develop its robotics industry.

The country’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy said in January that it had spent the equivalent of £415m on research in the sector between 2002 and 2010. It said the aim was to compete with other countries, such as Japan, which are also exploring the industry’s potential.

In October the ministry said the Korean robot market had recorded 75% growth over the past two years and was now worth about £1 billion…

The potential market for robotics is huge. Smart countries are investing in becoming the centers for excellence in that area. Japan and South Korea may well be in the lead. The USA, Germany and China also have strong communities.

Related: Robot Finds Lost Shoppers and Provides DirectionsThe Robotic Dog (2008 post)Soft Morphing Robot FutureHonda’s Robolegs Help People WalkRoachbot: Cockroach Controlled Robot

Eliminating NSF Program to Aid K-12 Science Education

Changing American science and engineering education

In exchange for funding for their graduate studies, Kahler and other fellows contribute to the science curriculum in local primary and secondary schools from kindergarten through grade 12. Kahler taught science at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham.

He also taught for two summers in India, and in Texas, as part of Duke TIP, the Talent Identification Program, which identifies academically gifted students and provides them with intellectually stimulating opportunities.

Through these teaching experiences in different locations and cultures, Kahler observed several factors that affect the quality of education in American schools. One important factor is the training of teachers. Unfortunately, teachers are sometimes expected to teach science without having received an adequate background in the subject.

STEM fellows helped to address this problem by contributing their expertise and by helping to increase the scientific literacy of students and their teachers.

Kahler says that NSF GK-12 has a strong, positive impact to change this because it simultaneously improves the educational experience of students in primary and secondary school and trains graduate students to communicate and teach effectively.

Unfortunately, the NSF GK-12 program is no longer in the NSF budget for 2012.

Sadly the USA is choosing to speed money on things that are likely much less worthwhile to our future economic well being. This has been a continuing trend for the last few decades so it is not a surprise that the USA is investing less and less in science and engineering education while other countries are adding substantially to their investments (China, Singapore, Korea, India…).

As I have stated before I think the USA is making a big mistake reducing the investment in science and engineering, especially when so many other countries have figured how how smart such investments are. The USA has enjoyed huge advantages economically from science and engineering leadership and will continue to. But the potential full economic advantages are being reduced by our decisions to turn away from science investment (in education and other ways).

Related: The Importance of Science EducationTop Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and KoreaEconomic Strength Through Technology Leadership

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