Spring Buzz

Kathy Goodson

It’s springtime in DC, which means a time for new beginnings. The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and the presidential candidates are beginning to unveil themselves. It’s a perfect time to talk about science communication. Public perception of science has been hit hard lately with recent episodes of misinformation, peer-review gangs, and overall confusion. With the fresh-faced candidates on the scene, we should hope to see new mediums to revitalize the presentation of how science affects society. Every facet of our life is permeated by science and I’m excited to see their takes on how science affects the world. What stance are they taking? How does that play into the bigger picture? What will that mean for the future of the United States?

As each candidate starts to release their platforms, we should evaluate what they are communicating, how they are communicating, and to whom they are communicating. In our modern world, political figures communicate science through the foothold of political context. We should expect our leaders to practice informed decision-making. Science communication at its best is a full conversation, which is both informative and educational. The more the public knows about science, the better we can understand how, why, and what policy decisions are being made.

As we fortify our country with new technologies, preserve our environment, and make literal leaps into deep space we all have a right to be a part of the conversation. Science communication is a science in of itself. It’s a necessary tool for successful communication between scientists and non-scientists alike. I hope our future leaders will help us to be a part of this conversation. In addition, since political leaders can shape this conversation, we should challenge them to use science communication to raise our standard of science public literacy.

This spring, we have the opportunity for a new beginning, a new President, a new type of leader that is not reactionary but rather bases decisions on a strategic plan for our future. Science communication is important and I can’t wait to start having this discussion with our new leaders.

A Call For Science Representation

Charles Mueller and Jennifer Buss

The US Government spent over $300,000 taxpayer dollars to prove that hungry people are angrier than well-fed people. Of course, the government also invested taxpayer money into a research project that created a company valued at over $250 billion dollars, Google. Why are the government’s investments in science so varied in their outcomes? How does the government decide what to invest in? Do they turn to the people and ask them? The answer is no. The truth is that the government turns to a small group of experts and hopes that they make they right choices. These experts determine how to allocate taxpayer dollars in ways they deem fit. This model assumes that people are unqualified to weigh in on such decisions or simply that they don’t want to. This is hogwash. You do not `have to be a rocket scientist to understand that investing almost $1 million dollars in scientific research aimed at teaching a mountain lion to walk on a treadmill is not a good investment. People want to have a voice in science, but they do not have a vehicle to carry their voice. Let’s give people a voice by giving them a science state representative.

In a democracy, the people’s voice is supposed to be championed by an elected representative who will carry their voice to the places that matter. Science and technology (S&T) has never been more important and influential in Americans’ lives than they are today, yet our elected representatives cannot properly address important S&T policy issues because they are bogged down by other obligations; not to mention, most are not qualified to properly weigh in on S&T issues. Rather than expecting our traditional representatives to become experts on S&T policy, we should create a new voice for the people when it comes to science and elect a science representative from each state.

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) mission is “to promote the progress of science”, amongst other things. This year, they received $6 billion dollars to do just that. Whose voices do they listen to when they decide the best way to use their $6 billion dollars to promote the progress of science? As of now, the only thing that is certain is that it is not the voice of the people. This is evident by the recent news that the NSF has been under scrutiny for funding research efforts that were not justified or in the ‘national interest’. Instead of allowing currently funded NSF researchers to peer-review grants at NSF, we could allow technically qualified elected officials to do the reviewing and make the national interest decisions. This would be giving the power back to the people.

It is time for us to decide who we want to represent our science standings to the government, rather than expect our current elected officials to have to do both. We (the people) should be choosing what science gets funded – not the scientists. It is our tax dollars at work. We should have a say, and we can elect people that will do that for us. Our current elected officials do not have the time or the expertise to address the many important science policy issues that exist today. Let’s choose people based on their credentials that will represent our wishes to allocate funds based on the state population. Let’s choose people who bring the science issues we think are important to the floor to be debated in Congress. Let’s take the first step in creating a people’s voice in science and establish a science representative from each state that would provide advising to the congress, the agencies, and create a national science agenda for the US.

Internet Providers Are Now ‘Common Carriers’: What Does That Mean For You?

Jennifer McArdle

On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet Service Providers (ISP) as ‘common carriers’ under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act by a 3 to 2 vote. So what does that mean for you?

Well, it depends on who the ‘you’ is, because that answer differs based on whether you are a regular consumer of Internet content, a provider of Internet content, or an ISP. However, essentially, this ruling is about net neutrality—the ability to access the Internet free of discrimination. So let’s break this down a bit.

Prior to the February 26 ruling, ISP’s were regulated under Title I of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and classified as “information services.” The FCC also put in place specific anti-blocking and non-discrimination rules as part of their 2010 Open Internet Order. Basically, the FCC was attempting to ensure two things: one, that ISPs could not block or deny consumers access to an Internet site of their choosing, and two, that ISPs could not create a tiered access system, with higher paying users accessing the Internet on a ‘fast-lane’ while others are regulated to a ‘slow-lane.’

In January 2014, Verizon, one of the largest ISP’s, sued the government and challenged the FCC’s regulations designed to implement net neutrality. The US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit upheld the FCC authority to use section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to regulate the Internet; however, it struck down the specific anti-blocking and anti-discrimination measures, giving Verizon the leeway to disregard the FCC’s rules. Five months later, the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on the Internet regulatory structure, which eventually received over 4 million public comments, the large majority of which were in favor of net neutrality. This set the stage for the FCC’s ruling last month.

By defining ISP’s as common carriers, the FCC is essentially defining broadband Internet service providers as a utility. They are mandated by government to provide the same service to everyone without discrimination—much like electricity and gas services.

So, what does that mean for you?

You, the content consumer

By classifying ISP’s as common carriers the FCC has banned ‘paid prioritization’—there will be no fast lanes and slow lanes of the Internet. And this is a good thing for the average consumer. Last June, John Oliver on his show Last Week Tonight (which is well worth watching) noted that 96% of Americans have access to two or fewer cable companies. That means that even if your Internet was being delayed or distorted you may not have the option to change to another provider.

Moreover, privacy advocates have noted that in order for ISP’s to play bandwidth favorites, they need to monitor what you are doing online via deep packet inspection. While deep packet inspection is certainly important to protect against nefarious viruses or malware, it can, under certain circumstances, lead to invasions of privacy. Defining ISP’s as ‘common carriers’ helps prevent against that.

The FCC resolution is designed to ensure that you the average content consumer— regardless if you consume high- or low-bandwidth—has access to Internet content free of discrimination, much like your access to other facilities deemed essential for public life, such as canals, rails, and the telephone.

You, the content producer

Last year, Netflix consumers noticed that there was far more buffering of Netflix content. That is because broadband providers insisted that Netflix users were consuming much of the available Internet bandwidth and therefore the ISP’s slowed it down. Netflix reluctantly agreed to pay interconnection fees to broadband providers in order to ensure its content consumers could stream its videos. Netflix, not surprisingly, is for net neutrality.

However, it is not just the giant content producers that stand to benefit from this ruling. President Obama has noted that ‘paid prioritization’ stacks the deck against small content producing companies, which are unable to challenge the dominance of Internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and Netflix.

Defining ISP’s as ‘common carriers’ ensures that content producers are not held hostage to ‘last mile Internet gatekeepers’ and can ensure their content reaches consumers free from bias.

You, the ISP

Not surprisingly, this ruling was not the best for ISP’s who stand to make money from a tiered Internet access system. Moreover, opponents to net neutrality argue that if broadband ISPs cannot collect fees from companies who take up an outsized portion of bandwidth, they lose the incentive to invest in maintaining and upgrading their current infrastructure. This may indeed be true.

The Future?

While the February ruling seemed to settle the debate on net neutrality, it may really be just beginning. The Title II ruling is not set in stone yet and it is already beginning to be legally challenged on the Hill. What that means for ‘you’ may fundamentally change in the months to come.

Democratizing Science: From Peer-Review to Public-Review

Charles Mueller and Jennifer Buss

It’s time to change the way we validate and communicate science. The golden standard within the scientific community to facilitate the communication of knowledge is peer-review. Unfortunately, this process becomes more dysfunctional with each passing day.  Earlier this week, a major publisher of medical and science articles, BioMed Central, found itself in a peer-review scandal. They were forced to retract 43 papers because the papers appeared to have been approved through a fabricated peer-review process. This is just more evidence that we have spent more than enough time trying to perfect a system that is archaic and easily abused. The definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.  We are insane to think traditional peer-review can still work. It is time for a change. That change should be to create an open-source, public-review system for science. We need the Wikipedia for science publications.

Whenever we have let a select few individuals or groups determine what is right and wrong the power has been abused. Every single time. It was only when individuals or groups gave the power back to the people could the situation improve. When Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Weitenberg in 1517, he gave power back to the people and away from the Catholic Church. The Napster revolution signaled to the world that people wanted to decide what was good music rather than the major record labels. Now artists can create and distribute their own music through a variety of avenues such as iTunes or CD Baby. Major publishing houses used to tell us what was worthy of publication, but this has changed since the emergence and growth of the e-book market. Now, authors connect to their audiences through blogs and e-books, meaning we decide what is worth reading and should be published.

Let’s give the power back to the people to analyze and review science. Let’s bring democracy back to America when it comes to science. In all the other democratic processes we have, the people have a voice. Why are we refusing to give them a voice in science? People want to have a say in science. This is evident by the recent rise in popularity of crowd-funded science. Furthermore, the government has already seen the value in crowd-sourcing parts of science (data-gathering) and the federal agencies actively promote the input of all US citizens during their rulemaking processes. We clearly understand there is value in the opinions of the masses and this is part of the reason the science community is pushing so hard for open-access to scientific information: an educated society is a better society. An open-source, public-review system for science creates an open-access forum for spreading knowledge, essentially giving the science community what they want. Yes, there will need to be a lot of important discussions about how we make this happen, but we should be spending our time working on this solution rather than just trying to fix the peer-review problem.

Fixing the peer-review process by opening it up to the people will only help improve the veracity of all information in the digital age. It empowers the people with the message that they are part of the scientific process and encourages them not to be afraid of it. The more people we have thinking scientifically, the more honesty we will have when it comes to our information. The golden standard, peer-review, is corroded and falling apart. Let’s give the power back to the people and create an open-access, public-review system for validating and communicating our scientific knowledge.

What Personalized Medicine is to Me

Charles Mueller

I hate our current medical system and I hate that industry runs it. I hate it because the medical field and medical industry all abide by a central dogma that “the answer to failures of a biological system (the human body) is a pill.” No. The answer to biological system failures is a biological system solution. It is learning how to manipulate your entire biological system and not just the one part you are concerned about. It is about learning to use the body’s systems to fix itself.

This is our fundamental problem with understanding disease. We subscribe to the belief that a diseased liver is an isolated problem and all you need to focus on is the liver. We forget the body is connected and we do not even explore solutions that might involve unorthodox approaches that manipulate entire systems rather than organs. We need a new dogma in medicine and the idea of personalized medicine might be just what we need.

There is a lot of talk right now about personalized (or precision) medicine after the President revealed his Precision Medicine Initiative. I think this initiative fails to recognize what personalized medicine really is and what is needed to make it real.

To me, personalized medicine is understanding how all the cells of the body communicate and respond to changes in the environment. The question though is how do you figure this out?

The first step is to identify the key metrics you need to understand the connectivity of the body’s systems. Once you figure this out, the next step is to monitor these in groups of people. Why groups of people? We cannot perform all of the controlled human experiments that would help us understand the body as a system because they would be morally and ethically wrong. So instead, it is about acknowledging that everyone makes choices that cause changes in their body. Your life is one giant experiment. Many people are probably similar to you and make similar choices. Many are similar at the biological level and make different choices. People are running around experimenting on themselves all of the time and nobody is asking them to come in so we can take some measurements and figure out what they are doing to themselves. This is the key. Let people be themselves and use Big Data analytics on the massive amount of data that is created from monitoring them. Monitor what the best available science tells us is important, group people into categories based on their metrics and life choices, and then figure out how different choices within a group result in health endpoints.

This is how collective monitoring results in personalized medicine. With such an approach, you will begin to really understand the system level of the body and how it responds to different life choices and the mechanisms for how those life choices alter human health.  Then it is just a matter of looking at you and what you have done to make highly informed predictions about the future of your health. You cannot just study one person in detail for the same reason that you cannot study one bacterial cell and say now you know everything that that strain does.

The President’s Precision Medicine Initiative plays into the existing dogma that I loathe. It fails to see the forest for the trees. It is primed to use Big Data analytics on personal data, like genetics, to identify which pill works best for you. There is reason they chose the word precision rather than personal. “Personal” would imply a new dogma, one that really focused on you and not one that focused on the precise pill for you.

The New ADD: Attention Deficit Drivers

Charles Mueller

What do a bullet fired from a gun, and a car with a distracted driver behind the wheel have in common? They are both metallic objects traveling at high speeds with the potential to kill anything in their path. When you drive distracted you are basically turning your car into a massive stray bullet. Think about that. If you are traveling at 55 mph and you take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds, then you will have just driven the length of a football field essentially blind. It’s dangerous and irresponsible. We need better laws and rules to discourage distracted driving.

When people think about distracted driving, most people think about texting. I’m guilty of this and everyone I know is too, despite the fact we’ve all heard horror stories about what can happen when people text and drive. One of the more publicized ones is about teenager Liz Marks, a former model who in her own words uses her cell phone “…every second, every minute, every hour”. Liz Marks was distracted by an incoming text from her mother and slammed into the back of a stopped tow truck while she was trying to read it.  Liz survived the crash, but she is no longer a model for beauty, she’s a model for not texting and driving. She is blind in one eye, cannot smell, is partially deaf, and has a scar down the left side of her face forever reminding her of that tragic day.

Distracted Driving

The sad part is Liz’s story isn’t unique. In 2012 alone, there were an estimated 421,000 people injured (and 3,328 killed) in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver. The DOT describes distracted driving as any activity that is not focused on driving the car; this implies texting, talking, eating, drinking, grooming, adjusting the radio, or even using the GPS. People have been eating, drinking and listening to the radio in cars for more than half a century so distracted driving isn’t new. If it is not new, then why is it so much more of a problem today?

In stories like Liz’s, the main culprit wasn’t so much the phone as it was her instinct to check her phone as soon as it buzzed. When Liz described what her phone meant to her she said, “If I didn’t have it (her phone) I would freak out because I couldn’t connect with my friends”. Thanks to companies like Facebook, social life has never been more important to most than it is today and our phones are direct access into this world.  When we can connect to so many people, so rapidly, it means we are constantly pressuring ourselves to be “available”; we continuously feel the need to check-in. Maybe that is why since the year 2000, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, human beings average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds (one second shorter than a goldfish).

Think about what this means. Without any distractions in the car, human beings today are more dangerous on the road than they were 15 years ago simply because we can’t focus on the road for as long as we used to. There is science that backs this claim and shows that people with attention problems are at a higher risk of car crashes than those that are not.  Furthermore, the latest neuroscience is helping us understand why. When we look at the brains of distracted drivers we see that they are literally disengaging their brain from the task of driving; this is the same as saying that when we are distracted and driving we may as well be sitting in the passenger seat with cruise control on.

I know this sounds crazy, but Liz Marks is lucky. She is lucky to be alive and lucky she ran into a tow truck, and not a crosswalk full of people. She knows this and is a now huge advocate against texting and driving. Her words to the world are, “If you get a text, don’t look at it. It’s not worth it.” Her story is powerful and her message is strong, but it’s not going to stop people from texting and driving unfortunately. What we need are federal regulations and laws that make the consequences of certain acts of distracted driving, like texting, on par with the consequences of drinking and driving. This seems logical since the evidence suggests the risks are the same. We should also make it a requirement to incorporate some sort of distracted driving test into the process of obtaining a state issued drivers license. We require a vision test in order to get a drivers license, and if you are impaired we stamp your license to let the world know. Driving while distracted is the same as driving blind, so why aren’t we testing for this?

Liz Marks story tells it all.  It’s time we focus our attention on keeping ourselves safe.  Don’t get distracted by the side issues. The science is clear and we need a federal policy to protect our citizens from the dangers of distracted driving.

Not Vaccinating Your Kid is Like Killing Your Neighbor’s Kid

Mike Swetnam

Vaccinations save kids! The science is so clear that it should not be discussed. Those that say there is any risk to vaccinations are like the people in the 1600’s who said the world is flat. It looks flat, but science has proven it is not. Even if I show a picture from space to these people, they will think the world is flat. The people who think that vaccinations are tied to autism or whatever are Flat-Worlders who do not see the great advantage that science has brought us. They do not appreciate the science of medicine that allows us all to live decades longer than those who thought the world was flat. They do not see the clear evidence that all of society is protected when you vaccinate your kid. The scientific picture is clear. Vaccinations save lives.

They save the lives of the children vaccinated, but they also save the lives of the kids too young to be vaccinated.

There was another report of half a dozen 6 month olds (too young for the vaccinations) getting measles. They might die. They got this disease, that was almost eradicated, because you did not vaccinate your kid. You, the parents who believed the witchcraft story of vaccinations being the cause of autism, not only risked the life of your child but you risked the life of even younger and more helpless infants.

You should be ashamed.