Category Archives: Science and Politics

Shhh. It’s Top Secret.

openaccess

Open access is the practice of providing unrestricted access to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles and a first step in encouraging data sharing.

I recently wrote this article as a submission to the journal Nature — it was rejected, probably because what I suggest would require a reworking of the publication process, something that lies in contrast with their business model. Data sharing is, however, something scientists and research could benefit greatly from and I hope something scientists (especially those just entering the field) will see the importance of and push for. Data is essential to discovery and history is very clear on the power of people working together to better the world.

As a younger person than I am now, just out of undergrad, I had a burning passion for science. I wanted to explore it and get my hands dirty. I wanted to work with animals and manipulate DNA. I wanted to make a big contribution that would affect the scientific community and the world.

It took me about two weeks of graduate school to realize research is a really slow process. Since scientist’s establish hypotheses based on previous studies and ongoing research, the more known about a problem, the more informed a hypothesis can be. Research is then conducted using tools, which, if you’re lucky, already exist. If not, it can add years to research, so, the more the better. To my dismay, my project lacked both previous research knowledge and existing tools…until I found out it didn’t. In fact, three other labs around the world were doing almost the same experiments I was. So why was I in the dark for so long?

Simple. Experimental secrecy.

And it’s understandable; fame, glory and money go to the winner – the first to the finish line. Technology companies live and die by this creed – we know that Apple will release an iPhone this year, but looks and functionality will only be certain when it’s revealed on stage. If it were common knowledge, another tech giant may copy the design and rush it to market, stealing millions of dollars in potential sales.

For consumer electronics companies however, being sneaky and underhanded in order to get the upper hand on rival companies really only affects other companies, and maybe some shareholders. With scientific research, it affects humanity.

As a rule, scientists are obligated to make their tools available to the community after they have been published. Does this always happen? No. Scientists should also be forthcoming with specific experimental methods following publication. Does this always happen? No. And that’s a sad reality. As scientists, we are conducting research in the study of truth, and yet some are conducting it with lies and deceit.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to blame scientists for being protective of their research. Novel research equals publications, which equal funding, and so it is money, as usual, that drives us to this necessary evil. The fact is that there simply isn’t enough money to fund all labs equally and hence the competition, but this is impeding the goals of our pursuit.

I’m not saying competition is bad, or that the scientific community should consider results true based on the word of one scientist and move on, but what makes science and the scientific community so strong is individual expertise. ‘Two heads are better than one’ isn’t a well-known proverb for nothing. Openness and collaboration have the ability to greatly speed the progress of science, leading to amazing discoveries (the Higgs Boson and Human Genome Project, for example). It’s somewhat ironic that the very people that elucidated the evolutionary benefits of social communities with regards to progress and survival hide things from their peers and make a go of it alone.

And if you’re wondering how the expedition of research will affect you, consider how experimental secrecy could delay drugs and technologies capable of curing cancer, organ failure and climate change.

So how can we, as scientists and citizens, address this issue? First, we can educate the public on the importance of scientific research. A well-informed and supportive constituency is our best bet for convincing governments to increase research spending. Encouraging and educating a next generation of scientists on the importance of progress and the power of collaboration will be critical. And maybe, by relieving the pressures of publishing complete studies in high-impact journals or being the first to publish, we can encourage regular data sharing.

Scientific advancement is the one sure avenue to improving the quality of all life worldwide. It seems morally reprehensible to knowingly stand in the way of that. Maybe in the end, my great scientific contribution, and hopefully that of others, will be in the pursuit of this idea.

Escargot prices set to plummet in Florida

snailcartold

‘You boys headed for the BINGO hall?’

Have you ever stopped and thought to yourself, ‘Lord have mercy. Those folks in Florida sure do have their shit together.’ If so, I’m guessing you don’t get much news in your parts. With that in mind, I’m going to take a minute to recall some of Florida’s colorful history as a way of sequeing into what I really want to discuss — gigantic snails.

In 2006, Jeb Bush ratified Florida’s state motto from The Sunshine State to In God we Trust to align with the current motto of the whole of the USA. Far from the first Bush family member to let others do their work for them, it may have actually been the best idea to ever pinball around his fat head. After all, taking away Florida’s identity may help people forget how ripe it is with idiosyncrasy (read: unique problems). With Florida, however, they would need to aerosolize some permanent, amnesia-inducing drug across the entire country to erase their epic fails.

Before The Sunshine State, Florida was known as The Land of Good Living. Now, sInce Florida actually ranks sixth in sunniest states, what this effectively means is that Florida ranks number one in inaccurate if not completely ironic license plates. You see, as far as I can tell, God is using Florida as a modern day Egypt where he can revisit the 10 plagues of the old testament…for kicks, but to avoid the stigma(ta) of predictability, he has introduced a flare and panache that has everyone saying, ‘Are you f**cking kidding me?!’

Any straight-minded individual might say, ‘to hell with this’ and relocate, but Floridians trust in God and, I’m guessing, find reason and comfort in the madness.

What is this madness? Well, they’ve got geriatrics, pythons, sinkholes, zombies, hurricanes, gigantic rats and most recently, giant African land snails. In other words, this truly is The Land of Good Living. The snails can grow to be 12 inches in length, have no natural predator, and eat any vegetation in their path, including crops.  The BBC had this to add:

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Putting the BAM!! in oBAMa – an American Success Story?

Lagasse_PhotoSo Obama wants to kick off his initiative for a Brain Activity Map, or BAM for short. While I believe it’s an homage to his Emeril Lagasse spice rack (BAM!! from here on out), I say bully for him. Considering the fact that Washington generally have their heads crammed all the way up their asses in regards to everything, especially responsible allocation of funds, this is a breath of fresh air.  Let’s get a few things straight, though:

1) Mapping brain activity at a resolution that would explain every cellular connection (the connectome) and signal AND how those signals would translate into thought or action is a monumental task. It’s a long term goal and will cost A LOT of money. That said, the medical benefits of such a project would be among the greatest of any single endeavor. So why is it that Obama has to use rhetoric that promises more of an economic return than a scientific one? I’m guessing it has something to do with the connectomes of a lot of people in charge. It’s not enough that this initiative would make leaps and bounds towards curing Alzheimer’s — BAM!! — and many other neurologic disorders — BAM!! BAM!! — or that it would cost every American only $10 total spread out over ten years — BLING!! BAM!! Some might call this a ‘no brainer’, but then I look at the dumb shit that surrounds me everyday and wonder how humanity manages to progress at all. Actually, I’m pretty sure we’re moving backwards. Case in point:

Do you know how much money is wasted putting this dribble on air? And a huge majority of people encourage it! Are we really so desperate? Is a plot that impossible? Have we deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts?*

2) Mapping the brain is not Obama’s idea. Scientists did not listen to the State of the Union and think, ‘O.M.G., why didn’t we think of that??!!’ Scientists have been trying to understand the brain for over a hundred years, so at the end of the day, I hope credit is given where it’s due. In fact, if congress had just poured the $3 billion the initiative will cost into NIH funding to start with, specifically for neurobiology research, this project may have been unnecessary. We might have already achieved the goal — along with others. But do you think congress will connect these dots and increase research funding in order to further drive scientific discovery outside of special projects like BAM!! or the Human Genome Project? If so, you better hope this project quickly turns out a cure for delusion.

In fact, instead of increasing NIH funding in line with the BAM!! initiative to speed progress, congress actually cut NIH spending ahead of the Sequester… (record scratch) wait, what? That’s just the kind of intuitive thinking I’ve come to expect from our boys in Washington. Keep up the good work, you dumb f***s!

*Hunter S. Thompson was a visionary ahead of his time.

Planck Satellite map of primordial universe better than Apple map of lower Manhattan

o-PLANCK_CMB_LARGE-570
Scientists have really been knocking out some projects with absurdly expensive equipment lately. And I say, why not? If the soulless yuppies that push around imaginary currency and wreck lives for a living are entitled to multi-million dollar bonuses, we should be able to test wildly theoretical ideas in diamond-encrusted test tubes.

And scientists are batting 1000 at this point (or at least that’s what’s been reported). A European coalition recently proved the existence of the Higgs Boson at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider and now the European Space Agency has flexed its cartography skills by mapping the ancient universe at the highest resolution ever using the $750 million Planck satellite. By the way, are you asking the same question I am at this point? Exactly. Where the hell is the U.S. in all this business? Last time I checked, we were never ones to back away from a little global fan-fare. Maybe this is why Obama is pushing the Brain Map initiative, which deserves a few comments of its own, but that will have to wait.

I’m pretty sure the resolution of the brain map sits about here:

brain resolution

Back to the ancient universe though:
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Why is Disease Evolving Faster than Humans?

diseaseThere’s a recent letter to the journal Nature, which explores the age of single point mutations in the human genome. This data comes as part of a large DNA sequencing project, funded by the National Institutes of Health Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which focuses on exons within the human genome.

Exons are kind of like the business end of the genome, meaning they make up the genetic code for proteins that play a major role in the development and everyday control of your body. That is not to say, however, that these are the only necessary or even the most important parts of the genome. As research progresses, biologists are learning that more and more of the DNA between these exons dictate where, when and how much of a protein will be made – regulation critical to life. But I digress.

The study, headed by the Akey group at the University of Washington, Seattle, examined the exomes (the part of the genome formed by exons) of 6,515 individuals from European and African decent. What’s the reason for looking at all of these exons? To compare the occurrence and position of small mutations across the genome. In doing so, the researchers were able to build a tree for the age, and therefore evolution, of mutations in our genome – specifically deleterious ones. And since deleterious mutations are sometimes correlated with disease, they were able to track, in a sense, the evolution of certain diseases.

In a nutshell, the study finds that most deleterious mutations are younger than 5,000 years old and that this can most likely be attributed to an explosion in the human population around that time. After all, the more genomes you make, the more you increase the chances for new mutations. The study also found that the surge of new mutations included among others, those responsible for premature ovarian failure, Alzheimer’s disease, coronary artery atherosclerosis and hereditary spastic paraplegia.

Read On to Find Out What This Means

LIsten Up, Science Teachers


This guy nailed it. The United States’ educational curriculum is so off base it’s embarrassing. I’ve been saying for years that teaching science needs to be about the concepts. Current, antiquated practices are borne out of laziness and serve as primer for standardized tests, neither of which will benefit children in practicality, later in life. With access to Google at literally every turn in one’s life, who the hell needs to know each reactionary product of photosynthesis? Probably best you know why photosynthesis is important to start with. The presenter is also dead on with his emphasis in narratives and analogies in teaching…as he is with his commemorative Hogwarts cardigan: one mourning band for Dumbeldore, one for Voldemort – science would have wanted it that way.

But seriously, he makes some great points. Watch the TED talk.