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Clueless scientist asks a very dangerous question

How the world sees scientists. Thank you, Underdog.

Note: Congressional hearings on the US Ebola efforts are going on right now with representatives from CDC, NIH, BARDA, FDA and others.  You can watch it here.  If anyone wants a live blog, let me know.  I invite other geeky types to watch and summarize, especially those of us with knowledge of the drug discovery/biotech area.

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No, it’s not me.  I admit to being clueless sometimes but not when it comes to the distribution of information.

I’m talking about Leonard Adleman who wrote an Op/Ed in the NYTimes about how easy it would be to revive smallpox.  The reason it would be theoretically easy is because the sequence for the smallpox virus is available online.  So, some really clever evil genius with a garage lab could potentially order up a copy of the gene from one of the synthetic gene specialists in South San Francisco and piece the sucker together using, oh, I don’t know, a variola, vaccinia or orthopox virus just hanging around.  It sounds complicated and might take some time, and if the independent researcher was born in the 80’s, there’s a good chance he’ll die of the disease if he’s not careful.  But it is possible.

Personally, I’m more concerned about reviving the 1918 influenza strain and getting it to go airborne, which, if I recall correctly, was successfully done a few years ago in Europe.  From what I remember, the researchers on that team suppressed the sequence.  Funny, I can’t seem to google that info.  Hmmm…

But getting back to Adleman, he’s not so keen on us just publishing the sequences on public databases.  Maybe it would be better if we just restricted access and only let the professionals see them.  That’s just nuts for a couple of reasons.  The first is that through the years, I have noticed that the sciences are full of people with psychopathic tendencies.  Fortunately, most of them get promoted out of the lab into management.  But just because they might be working at a prestigious lab with unrestricted access to information doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us.  After all, we still don’t know who did the anthrax attacks and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a garage biologist.

The second reason is, referring to smallpox especially, we have a vaccine for that.  Oh sure, there will be plenty of thirty year olds who may be at risk but an outbreak would be limited.

And for the people who have extraordinary skill in making lethal viruses, I have a perfect solution: HIRE THEM!  Jeez, why in god’s name would you lay off hundreds of thousands of talented people and have them stew over the MBAs and shareholders who wrecked their careers??  Especially when there are auction sites where they can buy discounted equipment from mothballed labs?

I can’t see a teenager doing this, although we do have a lot of malicious computer viruses so who knows.  But they would have to be trained.  Just getting the sequence is not enough.  It’s not like writing code and you can’t get all your information from a book.  Maybe grad students would be capable if they’re motivated, so you tyrannical PIs out there should be on your guard.  But cooking up stuff in a lab takes practice and some good mentors to teach you how to do it.

In other words, it is possible that some well funded hostile country could fund this kind of work by sending some grad students to study in Dr. Adleman’s lab, for example.  He and his students would always have access to sequence data. But smallpox is not a threat and the other diseases are not so easily made.

But the best reason for not restricting access is that it once again takes out of the public domain millions of sequences for genes and proteins that the independent benevolent researcher has access to.  I think it’s great that the US publishes to the NIH PubMed and the European Mol Bio Organization provides this information for free to anyone who wants it.  Without sequence information, and the tools to process it, small, entrepreneurial companies would not have access to it without paying a fee.  That fee, like the high costs of accessing journal articles, could be a substantial barrier to admission to new businesses and new cures for diseases.

Think of it this way, without the information from sequence databases, Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, the company that discovered ZMapp, might never have gotten off the ground.

It’s unlikely that I’m going to produce an ebola protein in the lab but I’m glad that someone published the sequence data so that another lab could make them, crystallize them and publish 47 different protein crystal structures to the web for anyone to access, including a former drug designer in Pittsburgh.  That means a lot to me.  And maybe some crazy kid out there who likes looking at these things and enjoys protein folds and modeling as much as I do will be inspired to find a cure for ebola and other diseases.

What worries me is that the fear that Adleman is producing will lead to those sequences being locked away forever so that only the rich and well connected have access to them.  It would be the equivalent of the Patriot Act.  We wouldn’t know what we had lost until the new Dark Ages descended on science.  Do we really want to leave this information in the hands of only those who can afford to access it?

 

 

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Tuesday: Science, politics and niche theory

Update: I totally missed this.  The FCC is proposing new rules for broadband and wireless providers.  Depending on whether you have a landline method of delivery or wireless, your internet stream will be regulated differently.  This is particularly important because the world is going wireless so it could be a coup for the masters of the universe that want more control of content and how much you will pay for it.  They’re already gouging us.  Why make it easier for them to control what you can have and how fast?  We already lag Romania in terms of internet connection speed.  Romania.

According to the report “2010 Report of Internet Speeds in All 50 States” released recently by the Communications Workers of America (CWA):

“The report shows that the rate of increase in U.S. Internet connection speed is so slow, it will take the United States 60 years to catch up with current Internet speeds in South Korea, the country with the fastest Internet connections.”

It’s inexcusable that we’re going to let wireless companies off the hook and not make them invest in their infrastructure.  Allowing them two tiered data plans gives them exactly what they want: more money without having to lift a finger to improve their equipment.

ROMANIA.

Jeez, just twenty years ago, Ceaucescu was running the country, it was dark and dreary, there was nothing to buy there and babies in orphanages were dying from HIV infected blood transfusions.  Now, they have better internet access than we do.  I have an iPhone in central NJ and I still can’t get a signal in my office at work right in the heart of AT&T country.  How can lawmakers even contemplate this kind of change without requiring wireless companies to get with the program that the rest of the world enjoys?

Unbelievable.

Moving on…

Yesterday, I was perusing Derek Lowe’s pharma chem blog, In the Pipeline, and he had a post up called Politics in the Lab about a recent article in Slate with the weird title “Most Scientists in this Country are Democrats.  That’s a problem”.  I don’t know that’s a problem and I’m not sure it’s even true, but I’ll get to that below.

The chewy center of this article seems to be that until there are more Republican scientists, the field won’t be bipartisan enough to get its point across.  Huh?  The author states:

Yet, partisan politics aside, why should it matter that there are so few Republican scientists? After all, it’s the scientific facts that matter, and facts aren’t blue or red.

Well, that’s not quite right. Consider the case of climate change, of which beliefs are astonishingly polarized according to party affiliation and ideology. A March 2010 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Democrats(and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans. Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain?

It doesn’t seem plausible that the dearth of Republican scientists has the same causes as the under-representation of women or minorities in science. I doubt that teachers are telling young Republicans that math is too hard for them, as they sometimes do with girls; or that socioeconomic factors are making it difficult for Republican students to succeed in science, as is the case for some ethnic minority groups. The idea of mentorship programs for Republican science students, or scholarship programs to attract Republican students to scientific fields, seems laughable, if delightfully ironic.

Yet there is clearly something going on that is as yet barely acknowledged, let alone understood. As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship. In lieu of any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of science, we can expect calls for more “science literacy” as public confidence begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists.

Ahem.  I find this article truly disturbing for several reasons.  But let’s go back to YearlyKos2 in Chicago when Pharyngula of ScienceBlogs, presided over a panel on Science and the public or some silly title.  I was shocked by how arrogant and dismissive the panel was of the average American who didn’t believe in climate change and evolution.  Yeah, I know how incredibly frustrating it is to get family members to buy into evolution.  But I’ve made peace with the fact that if I describe the theory of natural selection well enough, they will accept it without having to go back to the beginnings of time to find out where God is in the picture.  It can be done.  You have to choose your battles.

What’s frustrating to me is that there are a lot of Democrats who are just as irrational and gullible.  Their fears and misunderstandins are just different- nuclear energy, genetically modified seeds, colony collapse, thimerosol in innoculations (that absolutely do not cause autism).  I’ve argued with many of them to no avail.  They are as resistent to facts as creationists.  It has been particularly frustrating when it comes to pharmaceutical science where many people on the left, and you dear reader may be one of them, are convinced that the researchers are cold, heartless, profit driven monsters who are either making nothing but “Me too!” drugs or don’t care if they make poisons that only serve to treat some manufactured quality of life problem or they get all their ideas from government sponsored labs and don’t contribute anything.  They just take, take, take and never give back.  Admit it.  That’s what some of you think, right?  (If I were you, I’d ask myself who benefits from that perception?)  But I don’t really want to go there right now.  That’s not my point.

Here’s my point: Not everyone is cut out to be a scientist.  That’s why people don’t go into the field.  It means studying lots of math, wrapping your head around stuff like quantum theory (which isn’t necessarily impossibly hard to understand but it is very, very weird) and spending hours in a lab hunched over smelly chemicals and microscopes.  Some people take their required science courses in high school, get a passing grade and move on.  And that’s fine.  The world needs writers and mechanics and accountants and elementary ed teachers too.  It’s not that the field is too hard.  If you are diligent and motivated enough, you can learn anything.  But some people just aren’t passionate about science. If it’s not your  niche, that’s OK.

But if that’s the case, please don’t pontificate on science.  I don’t care if you’re right or left.  Just don’t.  You sound uninformed to those of us who do it for a living.  Like most Americans, Democrats find it just as hard to assess risk and can be just as gullible when it comes to evaluating the merits of a science article in the New York Times.  That kind of analytical ability comes with time and from reading a lot of papers.  There are even some bloggers who I love in most every respect except when they go off on a science jag.  Then they quickly lose their mojo and I just have to walk away shaking my head.  And I don’t think that the labs are teeming with Democrats.  There may be a slight tilt that way but there are just as many Republicans in the lab as Democrats.  Most people I know are independents.  In my humble opinion, Democrats are born that way; Republicans evolve.  And when Republican scientists evolve, they become management, which may mean that they are finding their own niches.

Now, don’t go away mad.  I’m not saying that Democratic bloggers should never discuss science.  And I’m not saying scientists are knowledgeable about every field.  We’re not.  Gawd knows I struggle every day to understand new science.  Things remain a mystery until you beat your head on the bench long enough.  What I am saying is that if it isn’t your cup of tea, proceed with caution.  If you *are* interested in a particular area of science or science issue du jour, you owe it to yourself to read up on the subject in the way that any scientist would.  Dig into it by learning all you can from people in the field before you pop off some opinion. Learn to evaluate data (BTW, the nomination of Obama during the 2008 primary season should put to rest the notion that Democrats are better at evaluating evidence. Really, there’s nothing to crow about there guys.).  

Now, where can you get information about science?  First, if you have an eReader of any kind, you can find free text books in just about any subject.  Second, our government does an outstanding job providing resources to the public through such sites as PubMed and PubChem where you can find abstracts and links to scientific literature, entire genomes, sequences, chemical structures and their properties, etc. The abstracts are free, the actual articles may not be.  You can purchase access to full articles through several services at nominal cost. There are tools like BLAST to compare nucleic acid and protein sequences, a database repository of protein structures in the RCSB, and lots of other sites of open source information in easy to use interfaces.  Some of them come with java viewers so that you can rotate molecules of interest.  If you wanted to start your own pharma, be a real entrepeneur, like the Republicans are always advocating, there’s plenty of free stuff online to use.  This is real time, up to date information, free to the public from the NIH and other government funded sources. We share our information with the world and the world with us.  That’s the way we advance science.  The sites belong to us, courtesy of us, the US taxpayer, and it’s one of the most valuable things we do.  Third, there are some popular blogs and podcasts out there where new science is covered in detail but also explained thoroughly for the non-science type.  I recommend the Naked Scientists from Cambridge University in the UK.  Their podcasts are challenging but fun and they will not talk down to you.

If there is one thing you can do for science this year, it’s advocate for the continuation of these valuable online tools.

One more thing:  Derek linked to a survey from the Pew Foundation on the public view of science.  You can test your scientific knowledge and get your score compared to the rest of the country by taking this online quiz.  I scored a 100%.  Nyah-nyah!