Author Archives: Corey Snelson

Greetings from the 2014 AAAS meeting in Chicago!

It’s been an exciting several days with lots of talks, seminars, and advice, and looking toward the future for science and technology. This year’s theme is Meeting Global Challenges: Discovery and Innovation. The meeting kicked off Wednesday morning, but it really got going on Thursday morning with day-long seminars investigating the challenges of communicating with the public, in the form of communicating with journalists, social media, and public events. Later that night there was a presentation by Story Collider and one about love in honor of Valentine’s day.

Rather than belabor every single story that was covered at the meeting, I’ll point you to several news outlets that covered the entire meeting, with more detailed stories to come on the sessions that I attended.

AAAS Eureka Alert
Science Update
Science News
And if you’re a tweeter, the meeting used the hashtag #aaasmtg

My only regret is that I couldn’t be in 4 places at once!!! I had to pick and choose what I attended, but I’m leaving this meeting inspired by excellent conversations and new and innovative ideas!

Corey S.

New Guides for Interpreting scientific claims and understanding policy making

One of the greatest issues that scientists face during uncertain financial times and in advancing scientific understanding is determining how best to craft a message surrounding our work.  Recently, Nature published a list of Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims.  Among the topics addressed are understanding the influence of chance and cause in variation, the understanding that correlation does not imply causation, and that feelings influence risk perception.

This list was published as guidance for policymakers to determine how best to interpret scientific claims, but as someone who has worked in laboratory screening and basic research for 15 years, these are also excellent reminders for guiding consumption of science and discovery of subjects outside of my area of expertise!

In response, Chris Tyler from The Guardian published a list of 20 things scientists should know about policy making.  While this is specific for the UK and Parliament, the lessons here can be extrapolated to the US Congress.  Among things scientists need to consider is the understanding that policy making is hard.  I have done some work with policy-makers at the local level, and lobbying at the state and national level so I understand the push and pull of different views on a topic.  It’s important to remember that not everyone will be happy with the outcome of a particular piece of legislation – and sometimes those people are the scientists who fight so hard to get legislation passed.  For better or worse, public opinion does matter – a directive that tells us, as scientists, that we need to do better with making science approachable for everyone regardless of age and educational level.   And at the very end of the day, politics and legislation boils down to money.  If you can make a strong argument for how your policy initiative is not going to be a waste of time, and even better will be budget neutral, you’re sure to win hearts and minds.

These days it seems misunderstanding of science is not just restricted to policy makers, but is popping up all around us.  This is made worse by groups using information to mislead the public, so I view these lists as excellent additions for anyone thinking about scientific discovery and how to make reasonable decisions about how to interpret scientific claims, and an excellent reminder of how policy making works.

Do you agree?  What do you think is missing from these lists?

By: Corey Snelson

New roles for Citizen Scientists

As an academic scientist, busily working in a lab on a very specific project, I rarely stop to think about the role of everyday citizens in scientific progress.  The release of  a recent story on BBC news highlighted the role of 500,000 citizen scientists in the largest survey of the environment, the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project.

Originally designed simply to get participants outside and enjoying their surroundings and raising awareness of the health and safety of the environment, the happy side effects of such a project include generating massive amounts of data, a sense of accomplishment and interest in science, and a much larger survey of diverse areas than a handful of scientists could ever complete. Using a specialized smart phone app, participants can count and photograph all the different types of  earthworms they find in different locations.  Scientists can then use this information as a measure of the health of a particular environment.

The publication of this article just 6 days ago led me to think about other areas where citizens can get involved in scientific projects.  I’ve long been aware that individuals often collect weather information including barometric pressure, precipitation measurements, temperature, and humidity among others, and this data is used by a broad group of organizations including the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Kennedy Space Center, Department of Homeland Security, and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.  The number of these home weather reporting stations has increased steadily over several decades.  Additionally, over 200,000 bird watching citizens with varying birding abilities and ranging in age from the very young to the very old participate each year in Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, collecting data that is used for conservation initiatives and public consumption.  Data from this project gathered by citizens helps scientists understand the impacts of West Nile virus on bird species, is used in Land Managers guides, and documents how birds are affected by climate change and acid rain.  Very important work!  Indeed, even at the University of Washington, a collaboration between the laboratory of Dr. David Baker in the Biochemistry department and the UW Center for Game Science created the Fold-it program.  This program allows citizens to play a game in which selected proteins are folded using a set of configurations in the game, and then scientists in the Baker lab analyze the results to determine whether an individual has identified a native structural configuration.  This information can then be used to predict protein structure to inform molecular biology experiments and lead to potential disease treatments.

There are also dedicated websites that individuals can peruse to see if there is a particular project that catches their attention.  These include Scistarter, the Citizen Science Alliance, Citizen-science.org, Citizen Science Quarterly, and CitizenSci.  Scistarter has listed the Top 12 Citizen Science Projects of 2012 here, and in August of last year, The journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment published the first ever issue dedicated solely to citizen science projects.

Citizen science has broad implications for policy as well. The University of Oregon has published a Theory of Citizen Participation outlining the ways in which citizens help influence public policy.  Researchers who establish projects that untrained citizens can contribute to hope to raise awareness of science, garner popular support for scientific research funding, and increase public trust in science and scientists, all of which influence policy decisions. Indeed, many hope that this type of scientific reporting will help science seem less intimidating to the public, and make many more scientists realize the power of thousands of people for gathering accurate data that will influence public policy moving forward.

Citizen science is a wonderful way to get children and adults interested in science by taking an active role in the discovery process, and is also a fantastic way to garner support of scientific research.  I encourage everyone to look at the available projects and get involved today!

Italian Seismologists found guilty

Yesterday, six Italian Seismologists and a governmental official were found guilty of manslaughter, facing up to 6 years in prison for failing to adequately warn residents of the possible severity of the L’Aquila quake. This is troubling for so very many reasons, not the first of which is that it is nearly impossible to tell when a quake is going to strike with absolute certainty, and the fact that failing to do so has landed these scientists potential prison time, in a country whose sentencing guidelines are very different from those of the United States. Many groups have blogged and written stories about this story already, so I will link here to those, and allow you to come to your own conclusions about this horrific tragedy.

BBC reports sentencing

Operational Earthquake forecasting

 

Lobbying groups play a significant role in shaping the funding landscape of Biomedical Research

Spurred in the 1980’s by advocacy groups for HIV/AIDS patients  and subsequent shift of seeing the beneficiaries of medical research funding from the scientists performing the experiments to the patients suffering from diseases, funding for basic science research has slowly shifted from a more distributive scheme to a more disease-driven scheme. Until the 1990’s, The US Congress allowed the National Institutes of Health complete autonomy to decide how the money that they received from the federal government was distributed. Increasing criticism leveled at funding allocation by the NIH, with the grim title of “dollars-per-death” requests that money be allocated to research projects that support diseases that have higher death rates. An important distinction is that basic research has the power to make important discoveries that can influence the scientific and treatment landscape for many diseases, rather than just a handful. Traditionally, NIH has resisted the pressure to distribute funds according to the “dollars-per-death” method, instead choosing to retain autonomy when making funding decisions, citing the need to assure that basic research is not penalized at the expense of specific diseases.

An interesting study was recently published in the American Sociological Review, entitled “Disease Politics and Medical Research Funding: Three Ways Advocacy Shapes Policy”, by Rachel Kahn Best . This study compares the amount of lobbying done by social groups representing patients with a particular disease to the amount of funding that research into those diseases subsequently receives from the NIH budget. This is the most recent in a series of studies linking grassroots advocacy to resulting funding levels.

In this newest paper, Best and colleagues studied 53 diseases over 19 years and divided these different types of diseases into categories, including diseases that primarily affect women and African Americans. In this paper Best discusses the fact that without a specific mandate to change the funding model to a disease specific one, lobbying efforts have been successful in swaying funding in this direction over the last 20 years. She categorized lobbying efforts into direct benefits, distributive changes, and systemic effects. Overall, Best determined that there is a strong relationship between lobbying efforts and funding changes, with those groups, particularly for diseases that specifically effect women (eg, uterine cancer) and the African American population (Sickle-cell Anemia) suffer funding distribution changes because of fewer dedicated lobbyists to these causes. Not wholly surprisingly, diseases thought to be less “morally worthy”, ie, lung cancer, presumed to be caused by smoking, and liver cancer, presumed to be caused by extensive alcohol consumption, have suffered a decrease in research funding over the last two decades.

A previous paper published in 2011 by Hegde and Sampat looked at the funding levels for 955 rare diseases by the NIH from years 1998-2008, ostensibly just the Presidency of George W. Bush (R). The authors found several interesting trends: lobbying by special interest groups representing rare diseases results in a greater expenditure of funding to those specific diseases, but less so in years following a change in the leadership of Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for NIH allocations. Subsequently, how funding is dispersed through NIH is influenced by “soft” earmarks, or those that are influenced by Congressional subcommittees, and not necessarily dictated by wording within legislation. These may be influenced by the preferences of individual Subcommittee members. Finally, the authors conclude that information that informs policy is gathered by information distributed by lobbying groups rather than well-monied interest groups at the cost of the larger public.

Economists have also joined the call to switch from NIH’s current funding model to one that favors more disease-specific and therefore more standardized model of NIH spending. In a paper published in PNAS in 2009, Manton et al. correlate an increase in spending on scientific research on specific diseases to an increase in the national economy. Earlier this year, Bisias, et al published a paper in PloS One entitled “Estimating the NIH Efficient Frontier”, in which they hypothesize that the modern portfolio theory  (minimize risk for a given level of expected return by carefully choosing the proportions of various assets) can more closely align the amount of dollars spent on basic research with specific patient outcome.

Undoubtedly, there is much to be gained from studying specific diseases. The economic burden in healthcare costs and lost productivity from major diseases is detailed in a 2003 study by the Millken Institute entitled “An Unhealthy America: The Economic Impact of Chronic Disease”. By all estimates, the cost of healthcare has risen dramatically over the past decade, increasing these estimates proportionally, though spending subsided slightly in 2010. NIH produces an annual list of disease and research categories and the respective amount of funding they receive here. The Center for Responsive Politics publishes the number of lobbying efforts per organization per year here.

The NIH budget is a closed system in that focusing money on one special interest will undoubtedly take money away from other, equally deserving lines of questioning. As scientists, it is important to understand the changing landscape of NIH funding and how that will affect many laboratories and the future of biomedical research. Additionally, it is important to understand that many biotech companies exist to support research into specific diseases, and that we should recognize their value for these reasons. An amount of money dedicated to a specific disease from NIH probably doesn’t represent the total amount of money that is spent research efforts for that disease in any given year.

The important take-away message from these new findings is that your voices are heard! It is crucially important in this uncertain funding climate that scientists lobby hard for increasing the NIH budget for sustained and continued growth!

ASBMB Hill Day, September 11, 2012

This week, I had the pleasure of traveling to Washington DC with the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) to lobby the Federal government for sustained funding for biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Historically, the NIH experienced a doubling of the budget for biomedical research in 2003-04 to 30.64 billion dollars.  Over the last decade, there have been two years in which the NIH budget was increased to over 35 billion during the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus) of 2009-2010, but has subsequently returned to the pre-stimulus annual budget during 2011 and 2012.  Currently, this level of funding has not been adjusted for inflation since 2003, and when corrected for this deficit, reflects an approximate 20% loss in purchasing power over the last decade.

To combat this loss in spending power, many scientific advocacy groups including ASBMB are calling for an increase in the federal budget of 4.5% for FY2013, resulting in an increase to 32.02 billion annually, continuing to 35 billion dollars by FY2015 in order to keep pace with international spending in biomedical research.  Without this increase, the US stands to lose its standing as a leader in biomedical research.

While there, I visited with staffers from offices in Washington, California, and Pennsylvania; from Pennsylvania, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D), Sen. Pat Toomey (R), Sen. Bob Casey (D) , Rep. Glenn Thompson (R) ; Rep. Anna Eshoo (D), Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), from California, and from my own state Senators Patty Murray (D) and Maria Cantwell (D).

Over the last several months, we’ve heard a lot about the potential “sequestration” of federal funding that may happen if a budget is not agreed upon by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed by President Obama before December 31, 2012. Sequestration is a potential result of the Budget Control Act, passed in 2011 with the intent to end the debt ceiling crisis.  This Act appointed a Joint Committee of Senators and Representatives whose primary goal was to achieve a 1.5 trillion dollar reduction in government spending over fiscal years 2012-2021. Sequestration could affect not only the NIH budget, but all federal agencies. If a balanced budget is not achieved by this committee, sequestration of federal government funding will take place effective January 2, 2013, and will result in the slashing of 1.2 trillion dollars from the federal budget. Were sequestration to go into effect it will most likely represent a reduction of at least 8% to the NIH budget and up to 12% to other federal agencies that support grant funding including the USDA.  A scary prospect for sure!

Representatives from most of the offices we visited were cautiously optimistic that the provisions from the Budget Control Act are scheduled to slash current funding would be stricken from the law in time to save the current amount of money going to NIH and other governmental agencies. Republican representatives were notably less optimistic.  Clearly this is a plan that frightens everyone from both parties.  Of those representatives who support increasing NIH budget that I visited, Senator Bob Casey along with Senator Richard Burr of NC have written and delivered a letter with the signatures of 48 Senators to the Committee on Appropriations  requesting an increase to the NIH budget.  A similar letter with bipartisan support was delivered to the House Appropriations committee with the signatures of 150 Representatives.

The majority of the offices that I visited agreed that increasing the level of funding to NIH should be a priority of the federal government.  Statistics show that for every dollar invested into scientific research through NIH government funding results in at least a $2.15 return on investment in the form of additional jobs in laboratories and increased commerce in local areas along with the potential to begin manufacturing from discoveries that are made in basic research labs at the University level.  One shocking finding is that the NIH invested 3 billion dollars in the Human Genome Project, and so far estimates suggest there has been an 800 billion dollar return on that investment. Clearly investing more in science can help boost a floundering economy!

As someone who has now suffered twice from cuts in federal research dollars such that I’ve now moved onto my third job since finishing graduate school in 2009, I couldn’t agree with this ask to the federal government any more.  It’s time to face facts:  people going through a tremendous amount of schooling and sacrifice to obtain PhD’s are losing their jobs in the academic market at alarming rates are not able to obtain the jobs they want in academia, though the unemployment rate of PhD’s is still low, job satisfaction is decreasing significantly.  This trend has serious negative implications for our economy, as it is clear that investing in basic science research is only good for the economy and the future of the US as a leader in drug discovery, therapeutics, and public health.  As a citizen of the US who has taken an active part in electing my representatives from the first time I was legally allowed to vote, I very much enjoyed this trip to Washington DC.  I left feeling quite excited about the future of biomedical research, and found that taking part in some small way in my government to be an empowering and instructional experience.  I highly recommend everyone give it a try!