Fire This Clown

Paul Krugman demonstrates his irrelevance yet again:

What was Mr. Rubio’s complaint about science teaching? That it might undermine children’s faith in what their parents told them to believe. And right there you have the modern G.O.P.’s attitude, not just toward biology, but toward everything: If evidence seems to contradict faith, suppress the evidence.

No, Rubio apparently believes that parents—not the state—should determine what their children are to be taught. Now, the logical way to go about this is to homeschool your kids. However, I can’t think of a single good reason why state-run schools in a democracy educate citizens’ children according to the desires of the citizens.

Anyhow, Rubio’s complaint is not that science contradicts children’s faith; his complaint was that public education was teaching things contrary to the desires of the parents. Since parents are citizens in a representative democracy and also pay taxes, it is right for the government that claims to represent the parents to obey the wishes of the parents when educating their children. To put it in terms that hopefully even a statist clown like Krugman can understand, Rubio apparently believes that children belong to their parents and not the state.

The most obvious example other than evolution is man-made climate change. As the evidence for a warming planet becomes ever stronger — and ever scarier — the G.O.P. has buried deeper into denial, into assertions that the whole thing is a hoax concocted by a vast conspiracy of scientists. And this denial has been accompanied by frantic efforts to silence and punish anyone reporting the inconvenient facts.

How soon we forget East Anglia. Now, when even the head scientists at the East Anglia Institute itself admit that the data is faked, fraudulent, and highly massaged manipulated, then perhaps we can conclude that the data is not trustworthy. And since a goodly amount of working papers and policies are actually predicated on data released by the East Anglia Institute, then it is quite fair for most, if not all people to be somewhat skeptical or even highly skeptical of the case for man-made climate change.

Furthermore, since there has been little research on how the sun—you know, that big ball of fire in the sky that only heats the entire world every day—impact long-term global temperatures, then perhaps all of us would be justified in being a little more skeptical of anthropogenic global warming.

We are, after all, living in an era when science plays a crucial economic role. How are we going to search effectively for natural resources if schools trying to teach modern geology must give equal time to claims that the world is only 6.000 years old? How are we going to stay competitive in biotechnology if biology classes avoid any material that might offend creationists?

I don’t know, division of labor?

Both my parents are public school teachers. You know what they don’t teach to fourth-graders in public school? How to search effectively for natural resources. Know why? Because that subject is not something that most fourth-graders are able to grasp.

I attended public school for my last two years of high school. Know how many biotech classes my school offered? Zero. Know why? Most high school kids don’t have the intellectual chops for biotech. For crying out loud, most college kids don’t either. Come to think of it, a good number of adults probably can’t wrap their heads around it.

Now, maybe Krugman should retake Econ 101 and read up on the division of labor. This is a fairly well-established concept, having been around since at least 1776 (in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations), that states that production can become more efficient when labor is divided up into various roles and sectors. Not everyone is going to take a job searching for natural resources, nor is everyone going to take a job in biotech. Those who do go into those industries will likely require some training beyond mere public school. Thus, it makes little sense to complain how creationism will take away from future biotechnicians’ budding careers, since most kids won’t need those classes, and those that do won’t need them until college.

Frankly, Krugman has turned into a caricature of his former self. I don’t know what happened to him, but his critical thinking skills—not much to brag about in the first place—have just gone down the toilet. Does he have Alzheimer’s or something? If so, I think it’s pretty safe to say that his mind is about gone, so maybe the New York Times might to go ahead and let him go already.

NASA Faces Obstacles in Its Search for Life on Mars

One concept most scientists agree on is that water is necessary for life. Because of this, finding water on Mars has become a mission for NASA. In the October 3 issue of Science, it was reported that the Phoenix mission to Mars has found minerals that “are indicators of liquid water in the past,” according to principal Phoenix investigator Peter Smith at a press conference on September 29. These minerals were sampled mere centimeters above the suspected position of frozen water.

To discover if indeed water had interacted with the minerals, the Phoenix took samples and ran several tests. Through these tests, soil samples were heated to high temperatures while Phoenix measured the amount of water and carbon dioxide released. Scientists believe that anywhere from tens of thousands to several million years ago the frozen ice on Mars may have warmed. This could have caused the ice to melt, allowing for the possibility of microbial life to develop in the soil. Even if this holds true, it is possible that the water and microbes formed elsewhere on the planet and were relocated via wind and time.

Unfortunately, this gives scientists little insight into when the liquid water existed or where. To make matters worse, the Phoenix machine only has a matter of months before the Martian winter disables it. Since the Phoenix is powered by solar panels and the sun is increasingly absent, it will soon fail to function. Phoenix has, however, already finished its original 90-day mission and an extended 30-day mission. While Smith would like to look for organic matter resulting from past life, William Boynton, another lead scientist, is not very hopeful of success. He notes that if any does exist, it exists in very small quantities. Scientists anticipate that Phoenix will continue to operate into November; however, toward the end of the month, it is likely the extreme cold and snow will completely disable the system.

Future Missions

Another mission, however, is already being planned for 2010. Recently, 100 scientists met to vote on where to send the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to have the most success of finding water. This is important since it will cost $1.9 billion. As always, there were two opposing groups. The spectroscopists hope to send the machine to areas which give off spectral colors distinctive of rocks which have interacted with water. The second group, geologists, believe any site showing rock formations clearly formed by interaction with water would be the most likely place for success. It will still take until November for the managers and landing-site steering committee to decide which three spots should be in contention as the most viable. It will be until spring 2009 before a winning site is declared.

Although the MSL was originally planned for launch in the fall of 2009, it was feared that this would be delayed for two years. Scientists grew anxious that this could delay other missions or cancel them all together if the MSL was not launched as planned. The reason for this was increased cost and complexity of the MSL machine. The MSL is four times heavier than the typical machines and is loaded with scientific instruments to examine the soil and atmosphere of Mars. This has been costly. In 2004, the rover was to cost $1.2 billion. As of this year, it is now projected to cost $1.9 billion.

Budget Concerns

The flow of money has not been staunched, however. NASA expects another $300 million to be added to the project, increasing the total cost to $2.2 billion. If this happens, it could threaten the 2013 Scout mission which is estimated to cost $485 million. The 2016 mission could also be cancelled. If it is, the $1.4 billion that would be freed would be put toward the MSL mission and two other rovers currently on Mars. Unfortunately, delaying the MSL launch could cost even more than continuing with it, according to Jack Mustard who leads NASA’s Mars science advisory panel. He noted that, “A two year delay could increase the cost of the mission…that would come out of the Mars budget.”

Regardless of the decision made regarding MSL and future rover missions, it is certain that the search for water and life on Mars will cost significant amounts of money in the near future. Although the findings from this type of study could be interesting, spending this much money on such a project tends to seem a bit irresponsible given the $700 billion bailout the government is also slated to spend in an attempt to save the economy. Perhaps the billions of dollars currently marked for rover missions could be reallocated to a fund for tax payer relief instead.

References:

Kerr, Richard. Minerals Suggest Water Once Flowed On Mars—But Where? (3 Oct 2008). Science 322(5898) p. 32.

Kerr, Richard. Culture Wars Over How to Find an Ancient Niche for Life on Mars. (3 Oct 2008). Science 322(5898) p. 39.

Lawler, Andrew. Rising Costs Could Delay NASA’s Next Mission to Mars and Future Launches. (26 Sept 2008). Science 321(5897) p. 1754.

Genetically Modified Animals One Step Closer to Our Dinner Plate

On September 18, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release on a document regulating the use of genetically modified (GM) animals and products in the United States1. This document is open for public comment until November 18 and can be read here. In it, it states that GM animal developers are required to prove such animals are safe to the environment and for human consumption, as in the case of milk, cheese or meat2. Moreover, they must prove that the DNA change that has occurred in the animal as well as any products or repercussions from such a change is safe for the animal itself and the human population. Since this is a relatively new area with unknown implications, and the animals are changed on a genetic level, the FDA is proposing referring to these animals as “animal drugs.” According to Randall Lutter, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for policy, “the technology has evolved to a point where commercialization of these animals is no longer over the horizon3.”

What exactly is a GM animal, and what possible contributions could it make to our society? Achieved in the 1980s, GM animals are similar in many respects to GM plants. They both carry laboratory introduced DNA, or a gene, that is supposed to provide some benefit to the plant or animal. For plants, the new gene could provide insect or pesticide resistance. For animals, a new gene could increase the rate of maturity or have increased levels of important nutrients3. Other animals, referred to as “biopharm animals,” could be used to produce medicines for human diseases. Other versions, labeled “xenotransplant animals,” could provide tissue and organs so similar to human material that the chance of rejection would be minimal4,5. Even more categories of GM animals exist; however, they have been refused entrance to the consumer market. Aside from the obvious safety issues, many are afraid of what ecological damage could be done if one of these GM animals escaped into the wild.

Environment and Health Concerns

In 2002, the U.S. National Academies’ National Research Council grew concerned that the accidental introduction of one of these creatures could upset the current environmental balance6. If these GM animals were able to survive better and reproduce more quickly, they could push out the non-GM versions. Some are concerned not only about the environment but also their health, especially since the FDA has refused to require foods made with GM animals to be labeled as such, the same way they have refused to label food from GM crops5.

So far, only one GM animal has been released into the public realm. Although animals intended for food have not been released, in 2003, the fish Zebra danio was5. This fish was not meant to be eaten but to be seen. These modified fish, called GloFish, were able to glow in the dark and were something interesting for aquatic hobbyists. Animals meant for food could be released, however, if found to be safe. This could be particularly welcome if it could alleviate food shortages occurring around the world. Considering that most of the world, however, looks at GM crops with disdain and even horror, it is unlikely that GM animals would be received any more warmly.

Worldwide Benefits

If GM animals can succeed at the level GM crops have, even with so many people’s misgivings, prospects are optimistic indeed. In 2001, Bt cotton, for example, was able to grow with 50% less pesticide, or 10,500 metric tons, because it simply didn’t need it. Bt cotton allowed for more yield as well, increasing it by 25% in South Africa and 5% to 10% in China. For China, this equated to a gain of $500 million per hectare and $750 million nationally. In 2005, Syngenta, an agricultural biotechnology giant which sells GM seed, generated $8.1 billion while Monsanto believes their profits will climb to $8.5 billion in the next four years.

As for animals, cows have recently been genetically manipulated to prevent infection from mad cow disease. Considering the fear, both abroad and recently at home, of meat contaminated with this, resistant GM cows might deserve serious consideration. Furthermore, since the global population is expected to reach nine billion by 2040, the gains provided by GM crops and animals may become a necessity to continue feeding, clothing and medicating the world. With the apparently large amount of money that is on the brink of being realized by such an endeavor, there are sure to be numerous companies who will try to cash in on the idea.

References:

1 – FDA press release on GM Animals

2 – Draft Guidance of GM Animals

3 – Science, September 18, 2008, FDA Issues Guidelines for GE Animals

4 – FDA GE Animal Fact Sheet

5 – FDA Consumer Q&A

6 – Science, August 23, 2002, Environmental Impact Seen as Biggest Risk

Anthrax Scare: Who’s Responsible and Why It Matters

Why would a scientist who had built his career on researching drugs and vaccines to protect his countrymen from anthrax purposely mail letters contaminated with anthrax to two government officials of the very country he is trying to protect? More importantly, was Bruce Ivins, a U.S. Army researcher of 35 years, the true culprit responsible for mailing the letters coated with anthrax in fall 2001 which killed five people? These questions may never be answered by Ivins since he died July 29 from an overdose of Tylenol. Seven years after these letters were mailed to two U.S. Senators among others, the FBI still has not firmly answered the question of who did it. In 2002, Steven Hatfill, an associate of Ivins, was labeled a “person of interest” by previous Attorney General John Ashcroft. Six weeks ago Hatfill won $5.8 million from the government for both associating him with the crime and the subsequent repercussions on his career.

While some wonder if Ivins was merely another innocent victim in the seven year search for a possible home-grown bioterrorist, others believe that his inability to handle the pressure and recent mental instability is anecdotal evidence of his guilt.

Where Did the Spores Come From?

Unfortunately, not all the evidence associated with Ivins has been released, but it is known that recent advances in science have allowed the FBI to run tests that would have been difficult several years ago. For example, it has been reported that the anthrax spores sent to the Senators have been sequenced. This means that researchers and authorities now know every gene and every detail of the DNA that made up the type of anthrax, or strain, sent in 2001. Since there are many different strains of anthrax, knowing which strain was sent may help authorities link Ivins to the crime if he, for example, used the same strain in his lab. Interestingly, the anthrax coating the letters was found to be a mix of two different strains, one from Ivins’ place of employment, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). Debate, however, still surrounds whether Ivins would have been able to produce the very fine powder found lacing the letters.

As the FBI works towards finding solid evidence, scientists are worried about another problem: continued funding. The episode in 2001 caused a surge of economic support for the biodefense budget. Prior to 2001, biodefense research was mainly carried out by USAMRIID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and funded at $685 million per year. After the anthrax scare, funding for new biosafety labs across the country increased to a high of $8.2 billion in 2005 and has recently fallen to $5.4 billion each year. Richard Ebright of Rutgers University stated in the August 8 issue of Science that the reason there was such a surge in funding was because it was believed an outside force had attacked us. Now that we know it was initiated domestically, Ebright believes the “expansion was fraudulent.” He believes the increased research in biodefense has actually made the country less safe than it was before 2001. Others maintain that although the anthrax scare in 2001 was most likely made by a domestic scientist, there are still those outside U.S. borders that could initiate such an attack and we need to be ready for such an event by continued funding and research.

A Frightening Substance

Anthrax is a particularly frightening substance because of what it can do in such a short period of time. Initially, when anthrax is inhaled, it presents as a common cold. According to the CDC, victims usually have a sore throat and mild fever. This is part of the problem, when something as deadly as anthrax mimics the symptoms of something relatively harmless like the common cold, most people don’t go the hospital and don’t get help. The common cold usually lasts a few days and disappears. Unfortunately, after a matter of days, anthrax symptoms turn more deadly by producing “severe breathing problems and shock.” The CDC notes that inhaling anthrax is usually deadly; however, it is not contagious and cannot be passed from person to person. The CDC has posted on their site that in previous cases, victims did not have a runny nose, which is usually associated with the cold or flu. This is poor comfort at best. Another problem is that anthrax is essentially undetectable until it is too late. It does not have a particular color, smell or taste which would alert someone to its presence. The spores are also too small to be seen with the naked eye. The only way one might suspect anthrax contamination is by looking for a powdery substance since the anthrax spores must be mixed with a powder if they are to be used and transported.

Whether biosafety labs face a reduction in funding and more stringent requirements in order to work with such dangerous materials, the science community has been stirred up by these recent events, causing many to wonder what the future holds. The possible actions of such a scientist long held in high regard for his research has shaken the scientific community a bit and led many to wonder if he really did it, why he would do it and how the government is going to propose to prevent similar occurrences in the future.