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Contents:
Since nobody around here does the GMO thing....
   in Author: Vranes, K. | Biotechnology March 14, 2007

left science/right science on....?
   in Author: Vranes, K. | Biotechnology February 23, 2007

Science and Politics of Food
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Risk & Uncertainty | Science + Politics January 29, 2007

Calling Carbon Cycle Experts
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Climate Change December 24, 2006

Ceding the Ethical Ground on Stem Cells
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology September 08, 2006

Science Studies: Cheerleader, Marketer, or Critic?
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Nanotechnology | Science Policy: General May 12, 2006

The Omega-3 Pig
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology April 04, 2006

Stem Cells and Vulgar Democracy
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Health March 21, 2006

Uranium Enrichment and Stem Cells
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | International | Science Policy: General March 09, 2006

More on GM Foods and WTO
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology February 09, 2006

What About Democracy?
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology February 08, 2006

Transhumanism
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology February 08, 2006

How Science becomes Politics
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology January 27, 2006

Hiding Behind the Science of Stem Cells
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology May 25, 2005

Making Sense of the Stem Cell Policy Debate
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology May 23, 2005

Defending Kass but Confirming the Conflict
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology March 18, 2005

More on Politics and Bioethics
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology March 16, 2005

Politics and Bioethics Advice
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology March 09, 2005

Frankenfood or Fearmongering?
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology February 16, 2005

A Couple of Newsletters and Essays
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Climate Change January 11, 2005

Op-Ed on Stem Cell Science and Policy
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Health August 02, 2004

NRC Report on Genetically Engineered Foods
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology July 28, 2004

Science, Art, and Safety
   in Author: Ryen, T.S. | Biotechnology July 01, 2004

I Beg to Differ: Biosafety
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology July 01, 2004

Book Review
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology May 26, 2004

Hiding Behind Science
   in Author: Others | Biotechnology | Health | Science Policy: General May 25, 2004

Mixed Messages on GMOs
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology May 21, 2004

Biodefense Science and Technology Policy
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology May 05, 2004

Beyond the Dustbowl: BT in Africa
   in Author: Maricle, G. | Biotechnology April 28, 2004



March 14, 2007

Since nobody around here does the GMO thing....

An article came across one of my inboxes and grabbed my attention: apparently a genetically modified maize strain developed by Monsanto has shown some concerning tendencies to cause liver and kidney toxicity in rats fed the GM'd corn. (Can't get the study online yet but it was published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.)

I guess this may be of concern because the maize has been approved for use and is being grown in seven countries and the EU? From what I can gather from the limited info available, to this point Monsanto has done all the safety studies on the strain, and despite some indications of problems (see here...warning, hard advocate site citing other hard advocate group, but you take what you can get) has declared its own product safe. The researchers of the new study say

"Our counter-evaluation show that there are signs of toxicity and that nobody can say scientifically and seriously that consumption of the transgenic maize MON863 is safe and good for health," lead author of the study, Professor Gilles Eric Séralini told France's TF1 television station.

You know what's coming next, right? That's right, Data Wars XXVI:

Monsanto France has rejected the concerns. Yann Fichet, Monsanto France's director of external relations told TF1: "[MON863] has already been examined by competent authorities and scientific experts in more than 10 countries worldwide, including the European Union and France, and all the experts concluded unanimously that the maize in question is as safe as traditional maize."

The problem for Monsanto is that the new study is published in a peer-reviewed journal, which gives it loads of legitimacy no matter what the author's funding was (could be a national lab, could be Greenpeace, but I can't read French so I don't know). Further compounding their problem is the previous notice of a Monsanto study on this same strain, noting the liver and kidney issues (can you spell Vioxx?). However, I also get the feeling from a bit of googling on MON863 that the study author basically works for Greenpeace, so who knows where this is going to lead. Anybody who tracks the GMO policy game care to comment?

Posted on March 14, 2007 07:44 PM View this article | Comments (1)
Posted to Author: Vranes, K. | Biotechnology

February 23, 2007

left science/right science on....?

Getting back to an old friend in the scientized-politicized world, stem cells/embryo research. In a story on stem cells and embryonic research in NPR's All Things Considered last night, UC San Francisco researcher Susan Fisher said, "Because the federal government has prohibited academic institutions from working on embryos, we really know almost nothing about human embryos in the beginning stages."

The difference between a federal government prohibition on a certain type of academic research (which very obviously did not happen) and a removal of federal funding from a certain type of research on moral grounds (which did) is not subtle or nuanced, it's quite clear, and it stretches my credulity to believe that Dr. Fisher doesn't know the difference.

Posted on February 23, 2007 09:22 AM View this article | Comments (1)
Posted to Author: Vranes, K. | Biotechnology

January 29, 2007

Science and Politics of Food

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has an excellent and provocative article on the science and politics of food by Michael Pollan. Here is an excerpt, but read the whole thing:

Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, "is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle."

If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways. Some populations can metabolize sugars better than others; depending on your evolutionary heritage, you may or may not be able to digest the lactose in milk. The specific ecology of your intestines helps determine how efficiently you digest what you eat, so that the same input of 100 calories may yield more or less energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes living in your gut. There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong.

Also, people don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed, based on epidemiological comparisons of different populations, that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. — are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that’s how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops.

December 24, 2006

Calling Carbon Cycle Experts

We'd welcome an explanation of the possible (or non) significance of this new paper in Science for understandings of the global carbon cycle. A news story contained the following interesting paragraph (italics added):

Scientists say the discovery could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending miles underground whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life.
Posted on December 24, 2006 06:58 AM View this article | Comments (10)
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Climate Change

September 08, 2006

Ceding the Ethical Ground on Stem Cells

The Washington Post has a good news story on the possibility of "ethically acceptable" stem cell research that helps clarify the confusion created by an over-hyped story in Nature, involving business interests, a misleading press release, and a erroneous reporting of the story by Nature. But the over-hyping may be the least important aspect of this situtation for proponents of stem cell research. Firt, here is an excerpt from the Post story:

Two senators who strongly support human embryonic stem cell research lashed out yesterday at the scientist who recently reported the creation of those cells by a method that does not require the destruction of embryos, saying the scientist and his company have harmed the struggling field by overstating their results.

"It's a big black eye if scientists are making false and inaccurate representations," a combative Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations labor, health and human services subcommittee, which he chairs. . .

Specter and [Senator Tom] Harkin [D-IA] focused on what they said was the main reason for the confusion: the company's [ACT] news release, which said the team had derived stem cells "using an approach that does not harm embryos."

The approach -- removing single cells -- may be harmless when only one cell is removed, the senators agreed. But in this case, it did harm embryos because the scientists, wanting to make the most of the few embryos donated for the work, took many cells from each.

Similarly, the release quoted [ACT scientist Robert] Lanza as saying: "We have demonstrated, for the first time, that human embryonic stem cells can be generated without interfering with the embryo's potential for life." . . .

Harkin said: "ACT should have made it more clear from the beginning that none of the embryos survived." He added that he suspected the wording was intentionally misleading to raise the company's long-suffering stock price. The stem cell field, he said, has "been hyped too much. We need to come back to Earth."

But Ronald M. Green, a Dartmouth University ethicist who was among several who approved the experimental protocol, told the senators they were wrong to belittle the findings or the way they were reported.

"We're speaking here of an enormous breakthrough in American medicine," said Green, who said his only financial link to the company was the approximately $200 per day he was paid -- more than a year ago -- for attending a handful of meetings to review the research.

Not addressed by the senators was a plainly incorrect announcement sent to science reporters by the journal Nature itself.

"By plucking single cells from human embryos, Robert Lanza and his colleagues have been able to generate new lines of cultured human embryonic stem (ES) cells while leaving the embryos intact," the release said.

That erroneous description -- written not by scientists at Nature but by the journal's lay staff -- was corrected after news stories were published.

Nature later apologized to reporters, blaming the mistake on "internal communication problems."

Over-hyped science? Financial ties to industry? Misrepresentation in a peer-reviewed journal? Where is the War-on-Science crowd when you need them? Oh yeah, this doesn’t involve the Bush Administration . . .

Less tongue-in-cheek, and more significantly, what has been completely overlooked here is the complete tactical blunder by ACT, Nature, and the general media in suggesting that in order to be “ethical” stem cell research should not destroy embryos. The acceptance of this point basically legitimizes the central objection to such research advanced by stem cell research opponents. It consequently takes off the table the argument that the benefits of possible medical advances might be balanced against the offense to certain groups in society. Over the long run, it may be that waging the debate over stem cells from the turf occupied by its opponents does more to limit its proponents than their ham-handed efforts to over-hype the science.

As the American Journal of Bioethics writes of this debacle on its blog:

Can't we just be honest and say that we favor embryonic stem cell research, at least for now, since that's what happens at ACT (and since it is true), even though the research destroys embryos?
Posted on September 8, 2006 01:53 AM View this article | Comments (4)
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

May 12, 2006

Science Studies: Cheerleader, Marketer, or Critic?

A former colleague of mine used to say that social scientists were the equivalent of "lap dogs" for the broader scientific community.

lapdog.JPG

By that, he meant that social scientists were around to entertain, look good, but nothing more. My experiences suggest that there is some element of truth in his description of the relationship of science studies with the broader scientific community, especially in those situations where the funding of the science studies scholars depends upon the largesse of the broader scientific community that they are working with. It is a difficult issue because one of the lessons from science studies research is the need for a close relationship with stakeholders, which for many science studies scholars are the scientists themselves.

I was motivated to blog on this after reading a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, discussing the challenges of putting limits on science. He observes,

The moral standoff that will quickly come to characterize the 21st century is becoming clear. It is not the teaching of intelligent design vs. evolution in American schools. Almost no one but biblical literalists takes the ID position with any seriousness as science. Nor will it be the heated squabble over embryonic stem-cell research. That scrum is actually over as well: Many nations around the world are doing this type of research, so the question is only where not whether.

The real battle - the battle that will come to occupy the moral center stage of American politics, morality, law, public policy, editorial pages, and water-cooler discussions - will be waged over where genetic engineering ought to take us and whether we are satisfied to leave it to scientists to guide us there.

Caplan acknowledges that "there here are plenty of reasons to worry about the misapplication and misuse of genetics." But even with such concern, Caplan quickly turns to a defense of the inexorable advance of research, and allaying of concerns about the role of scientists in shaping such advances,

Still it is a grave, grave mistake to argue that we must put all forms of genetic engineering off limits. Too much good will be lost. Our only hope of combating some of the worst pests and plagues that beset us and will torment our grandchildren is through genetic manipulation and engineering. The genetic revolution you and I are witnessing is humankind's last, best hope since it offers the prospect of more and safer food; the repair and elimination of genetic maladies like Tay-Sachs, juvenile diabetes, sickle cell disease, and hemophilia; the conquest of TB, malaria, avian flu, SARS, HIV, and many other plagues. And it will allow us to rebuild broken, worn out, or injured body parts.

Any of these alone would be enough reason to pursue genetic research. Together, they all but obligate us to do it. They are an all but unanswerable reply to those who say "No" to genetic research and engineering. Our society would be foolish and cruel to forbid or ban genetic research given the needs of the sick, starving, impaired and those of future generations for solutions and treatments. Will we really turn away from those who literally are dying before our eyes, or who will die before our children's eyes, simply out of fear of scientists guiding public policy?

Caplan offers a defense of scientific advancement much like the old saw, "guns don’t kill people, people kill people,"

I do not believe we have much to fear from the actions of any individual scientist. Few, contrary to the pope's concern, aspire to play God. Science has no tolerance for such fantasies.

Geneticists know how little they know individually and how hard it is to manipulate nature. Moreover, none of them, not even the best and brightest, is capable of transforming a discovery from the lab into the real world by himself or herself. That sort of power is reserved for the deity, governments or the market.

What the deity does is beyond our control. But what government or the market does or is allowed to do is very much a matter of politics, regulation and oversight. When theologians or members of the public point the finger of moral worry at scientists, they need to redirect it. It is governments and the marketplace that we need to shape and hold accountable for how genetic knowledge is or is not applied.

I generally agree with Caplan that genetic technologies may hold great promises and that almost every scientist is a good and decent person. But these general feelings about the science and scientists are no substitute for the fact that (a) genetic technologies may pose unknown risks (e.g., concerns raised about GMOs and the environment) and simply be morally wrong (e.g., chimeras), and (b) scientists, like any group in society, are not above democratic accountability.

Caplan suggests that the an unfulfilled role for scientists – and their science studies lapdogs – is to communicate the importance of research so that the public will allow it to go forward and support it.

What scientists need to do - and quickly - is come out of their laboratory lairs and be seen in public. You need to know about their aspirations, dreams, hopes, and values. You need to know they stand shoulder to shoulder with all of us in wanting a better world. They see a better future and a way to get there.

Genetic research in the hands of those who practice is not aimed at power, fame, ambition, or transforming oneself into a god. If it is about anything, it is about love: the love of life, the love of people, the drive to make a better life for the sick and those at risk of becoming so.

These last few statements are pretty incredible. The Hwang Woo-Suk and Gerald Schatten stem cell affair (see the University of Pittsburgh report in PDF) may have been an aberration but it did provide a window into a world where power, fame, and ambition are not so uncommon. In light of this recent experience, for an ethicist to suggest otherwise is a bit pollyannaish, and quite a bit too much cheerleadering from where I sit.

Caplan is of course right on when he asks us to

Hold your politicians accountable. Ask them to explain how funding for genetics is allocated and accounted for. Insist that they ensure that commercial interests do not succeed in keeping private genetic applications and products that might offend the moral sense of the community or, worse, our health and well-being.

But part of such accountability in my view is public engagement in the process of deciding on what research is and is not appropriate, not simply engaging abroader set of stakeholders in decisions about commercialization after the research is well underway or completed in the form of products. Along these lines, a perspective of "upstream engagement" has been discussed here in the context of the excellent work of a UK think tank called DEMOS. (Have a look at their most recent report on governing nanotechnology here.) Caplan goes too far when he asserts, "The genetic genie is out of the bottle. There is not much anyone can do to put it back nor, once we understand its potential for good, ought we to do so." There are many genies and many bottles. Deciding which genies to free and which to keep in their bottle is an important part of the democratic governance of science and technology.

Caplan’s piece reminded me of Langdon Winner’s comments about the societal aspects of nanotechnology in Congressional testimony in 2003. Winner had some strong things to say about science studies scholars,

The professional field of bioethics, for example, (which might become, alas, a model for nanoethics) has a great deal to say about many fascinating things, but people in this profession rarely say "no."

Indeed, there is a tendency for career-conscious social scientists and humanists to become a little too cozy with researchers in science and engineering, telling them exactly what they want to hear (or what scholars think the scientists want to hear). Evidence of this trait appears in what are often trivial excercises in which potentially momentous social upheavals are greeted with arcane, highly scholastic rationalizations. How many theorists of "intellectual property" can dance on the head of a pin?

One way to avoid the drift toward moral and political triviality is to encourage social scientists and philosophers to present their findings in forums in which people from business, the laboratories, environmental organizations, churches, and other groups can join the discussion. It is time to reject the idea there are only a few designated stakeholders that are qualified to evaluate possibilities, manage the risks, and guide technology toward beneficial outcomes.

As issues of science and technology continue to occupy an even more central role in important societal questions, there will be difficult questions raised about the role of science studies with respect to their relationship with science, politics, and policy. Science studies scholars will have to confront questions about what sorts of roles they ought to play and under what institutional, financial, and social dynamics. To oversimplify, what will it be, cheerleader, marketer, or critic?

April 04, 2006

The Omega-3 Pig

Autumn Fiester, from the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, has a provocative essay on genetically modified pigs at AJOB. Here is an excerpt:

The new omega-3 pig is the perfect example of what is terribly wrong with American animal biotech research: scientists pursue whatever interests them, and then they try to find a problem for which their results can be hailed as the solution. Instead of having the animal biotech agenda driven by the public’s true needs and values, we have an agenda-less agenda, with individual research teams expending vast resources on frivolous projects the public doesn’t want or need. The backdrop here is that Americans are, at this point, overwhelmingly opposed to this science, and much of this research is federally funded, so the American people actually pay for the research through their tax dollars. We need a biotech strategy that serves the public’s collective interests and conforms to their values.

Dr. Fiester concludes,

All of this is not to say that animal biotechnology can never be morally justified. There may be great good that can be accomplished with a reflective, cautious approach to this science. But instead of the default position being “anything goes,” it ought to be “proceed only with extreme caution.”

This does sound to me a lot like the objections that some have to stem cell research. How should we decide, whether it is genetic modification of animals or human stem cell research, what research is to be allowed and which is not?

Posted on April 4, 2006 01:16 AM View this article | Comments (19) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

March 21, 2006

Stem Cells and Vulgar Democracy

Dan Sarewitz has posted the text of a paper that he gave at the AAAS meeting last month titled, “Proposition 71: Vulgar Democracy in Action” (PDF). Here is how it begins:

In 1947, when Congress passed legislation to create the National Science Foundation, President Truman vetoed the bill because it insulated the administration of the proposed agency from direct Presidential control. At issue here was not a simple question of turf or the exercise of power, but a fundamental principle of democratic governance: that publicly funded programs must be ultimately accountable to the public via democratically elected officials. In the decades since Truman’s veto, as the nation’s investment in research has grown from a few tens of millions to about sixty billion dollars, this principle has never seriously been challenged. Indeed, it is precisely this accountability that has allowed the publicly funded research enterprise to maintain its political legitimacy, productivity, and growth through such crises as the Tuskegee experiment and the death of Jesse Gelsinger, and which has stimulated a considerable beneficial evolution of scientific norms in such areas as protocols for human subjects’ research, the treatment of laboratory animals, and the role of gender and ethnic diversity in clinical trials. Democratic accountability, that is, is good for science.

So, in the summer of 2004, when I first read the language of Proposition 71, the “California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act,” I was floored. Written and promoted by a coalition of patients’ advocates and research interests from the academic and private sector, Proposition 71 was of course a response to President Bush’s draconian restrictions on publicly funded embryonic stem cell research. But it was a response that was as extreme in its own way as the President’s actions. Proposition 71 would create a new stem cell research institute, funded by public monies raised through a bond issue, that was effectively insulated from all public accountability through a variety of mechanisms, including the creation of a state constitutional right to conduct stem cell research, a ten-year funding entitlement that “shall not be subject to appropriation or transfer by the Legislature or the Governor for any other purpose,” and a provision that allowed legislative amendment to the initiative only after three years, only by a 70% supermajority of the California legislature, and only “to further the purposes of the grant and loan programs created by the measure.”

Most troubling of all were the proposed mechanisms for accountability, particularly as embodied in the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee, whose stipulated membership was made up almost entirely of people whose interests were in some way served by goals of embryonic stem cell research. There was absolutely nothing independent about this committee at all. In summary, as I wrote in an LA Times op-ed in October 2004, “Proposition 71 would put stem cell research out of the reach of Sarewitz democracy—in a move that would seriously undermine the unwritten social contract that exists between government and science in this country.” Conservative political theorist Francis Fukuyama, writing in the Wall Street Journal on the same day, was less restrained, asserting that “Prop 71 is a bad idea, not because stem-cell research is morally wrong, but because it represents a huge, self-dealing giveaway of money from cash-strapped California taxpayers to a small group of institutions and companies that will remain largely unaccountable.” A similar position was taken by the Center for Genetics and Society, a California-based NGO with liberal leanings.

Now of course I recognize that questions of political accountability and the governance of science can hardly stack up to the promise of curing disease. Indeed, at one point prior to the election I found myself in the compromised position of having to debate on a radio program one of the promoters of Proposition 71, a Hollywood director named Jerry Zucker, who, if I recall correctly, had a child with diabetes. No doubt I came off as an ivory tower esthete willing to place abstract principle above the alleviation of a child’s suffering.

As usual, Sarewitz is smart, provocative, and on target. Read the whole thing. (PDF)

Posted on March 21, 2006 07:02 AM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Health

March 09, 2006

Uranium Enrichment and Stem Cells

Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting article on uranium enrichment research in Iran. It begins as follows:

There are times when even a little bit of research can be a bad thing, especially if it centers on Iran and the bomb. On Tuesday, a wide range of nuclear scientists and analysts faulted as dangerous Moscow's tentative proposal to let Tehran do small amounts of research on uranium enrichment, with some comparing it to being a little bit pregnant. "After a while, you tend to wind up having a baby," said Peter D. Zimmerman, a professor of science and security in the war studies department of King's College, London. "I do not believe the Iranians should have any access to enrichment technology until they prove to be a more responsible partner than they've been so far." The Iranians have strenuously objected to such characterizations, saying the West wants to deprive them of atomic knowledge and expertise that they have a right to acquire for a peaceful program of nuclear power. They see it as nothing less than a devious plot by outside powers to keep their country from modernizing. In an interview with Al Arabiya television last month, for example, Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said, "The problem is that they look at the Islamic nations as being inferior, that we should not have modern technology, and it is enough for us to produce tomato paste and mineral water."

The international issue of nuclear research in Iran is in my mind exactly analogous to the debate at the federal level over stem cell research in the United States in the follow ways:

1. A group in society – the researchers -- wants to conduct research that has potential positive benefits to outcomes that they value.
2. Another group in society – the restricters -- wants to restrict that research because of its potential negative impacts with respect to outcomes that they value.
3. Both groups seek to impose their values on the other, but both cannot succeed at the same time as their goals are in direct conflict.
4. In both cases the restricters have the upper hand from a political perspective.
5. In both cases the researchers are seeking ways around the research restrictions.
6. The researchers assert that this is about the right to conduct research.
7. The researchers accuse their opponents as being morally challenged.
8. In both cases the decision to conduct the research or not is 100% political.

These debates are about what research gets to be conducted, by whom, and how paid for. Did I miss anything? I’m interested in reactions.

February 09, 2006

More on GM Foods and WTO

At SciDev.net David Dickson has a thoughtful essay on GM foods, science, and trans-science. Dickson notes that people in poor countries can view “modern science and technology with suspicion, if not scepticism.” I’d extend this claim to cover some people in richer countries as well. Here is an excerpt:

But the distrust is also due to the fact that faith in scientific solutions may clash with the comforting certainties of traditional belief systems. This in turn means that these solutions may undermine not only the social practices that belief systems support — the most obvious example being traditional medicine — but also the social cohesion they generate. Put these factors together, and the result is that, for all its promises, modern science often generates a sense of alienation, rooted in feelings of a loss of control. In principle, we can all subscribe to the idea that, as the philosopher Francis Bacon said, "knowledge is power". In practice, scientific knowledge is frequently seen as reinforcing the power of those who already have it — and, as a consequence, further disenfranchising those who do not.

Dickson then explains that the GM food debate is not really about scientific risk per se, but science and technology in modern society:

Nowhere does this alienation appear more strongly than in the public opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops. Critics frequently label this opposition as 'irrational' or 'anti-scientific'. Such thinking is reflected in yesterday's verdict by the World Trade Organisation, which overturned European opposition to imports of GM crops from Argentina, Canada and the United States on the grounds that Europe lacked a sufficient scientific justification for taking such action (see WTO says Europe's GM ban broke trade rules). To some extent, the critics are justified. The 'science' that opponents of GM crops quote to support their cause is often misleading, incomplete, or just wrong. Think of the mileage given to the work by immunologist Árpád Pusztai, whose claim that eating GM potatoes can weaken the immune system is contested by most experts in the field, but remains widely quoted by GM opponents. Or look at the claim that GM food can trigger allergies. The evidence is no stronger than data supporting claims that carbon dioxide emissions do not accelerate global warming. Yet those who readily reject the second claim often have little difficulty in accepting the first. All this, however, misses the point that the opposition to GM crops is not grounded in a scientific assessment of their relative risks and benefits. Rather, it is strengthened by deeper feelings of mistrust and alienation, and the fact that GM technology meets many of the criteria for triggering such a reaction.

Dickson says that the debate has confused science and politics:

The problem with all of these arguments is that, despite raising legitimate concerns about how the modern technology is controlled, they can demonise the technology itself. And in doing so they also implicate the science on which it is based. Sometimes linking the means with their ends is justified. The US National Rifle Association may claim that it is people — not guns — that kill, but that does not imply that guns are a neutral technology (significantly the US patent system refuses to offer protection to clearly anti-social devices, such as letter bombs). For GM crops, however, this is far from being the case. The technology may have associated dangers that remain unknown, such as the long-term ecological impacts of growing GM crops. But it is also clear that, provided the technology's use is properly monitored and controlled, it has the potential to meet the needs of farmers — both large-scale and small — as well as society's demands for cost-effective food production.

Where I depart from Dickson is when he suggests that better “communication” can help stanch opposition to new and potentially disruptive technologies:

One step towards reducing this distrust is greater transparency. Information about science — and the technology based on it — must be communicated in an accessible way. It also means that information must not be restricted to the positive aspects of the technology, but must embrace all relevant data; nothing generates suspicion more than a sense that unfavourable data is being suppressed. But communication has to take place in context. Preaching about the virtues of science-based agriculture without taking into account people's underlying concerns is unlikely to help. Effective communication must involve an awareness of the factors that generate alienation and cause distrust of science, which in practice means giving people the information they need to retain a sense of control of what is important to them.

But perhaps Dickson simply oversimplified his recommendation when he called it “communication” as his conslcusion shows condierably greater nuance, and presents good advice:

[Our] conviction [is] that a commitment to science-based agriculture is essential if the world in general — and developing countries in particular — are to meet the growing demand for food. Equally important is a commitment to ensuring that new technologies are applied within a political framework that encourages social inclusion (for example, with adequate provision for benefit sharing, or for moulding intellectual property laws to local circumstances). This will minimise feelings of alienation and distrust . Paying attention to one and not the other significantly reduces the overall chances of success. Addressing the two simultaneously is a more challenging task. But it is essential if the promises of agricultural biotechnology are to be fulfilled. Shooting the messenger — the science on which these technologies are based — is not the answer.”

More reading at the SciDev.net dossier on biotechnology and the Pew Initiative of Food and Biotechnology.

Posted on February 9, 2006 07:21 AM View this article | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

February 08, 2006

What About Democracy?

The WTO ruled yesterday that there is no scientific justification for opposition in the EU to genetically modified crops. According to the Financial Times,

The World Trade Organisation ruled yesterday that European restrictions on the introduction of genetically-modified foods violated international trade rules, finding there was no scientific justification for Europe’s failure to allow use of new varieties of corn, soybeans and cotton. The ruling was a victory for Washington in a long-running dispute that has pitted US faith in the benefits of the new crops against widespread consumer resistance in Europe. It was immediately welcomed by US farmers and the biotechnology industry, but castigated by environmental and consumer groups who charged the ruling was a blatant example of international trade rules running roughshod over democratic decisions aimed at protecting consumer health and safety. . . The ruling was also seized on by groups representing large food companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta, which have been frustrated by the moratorium and the slow pace of approvals for new GM products. Sarah Thorn, senior director of international trade at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said: “The WTO’s decision makes it clear that biotech regulations must be based on sound science and that the EU’s approach to biotech crop approvals is unwarranted.” But Friends of the Earth criticised the ruling as an “inappropriate intrusion into decisions about what food people eat”. Brent Blackwelder, president of the group’s US division, said: “The WTO is unfit to decide what we eat or what farmers grow. It is an undemocratic and secretive institution that has no particular competence in environmental or health and safety matters. This WTO decision will only increase the determination of citizens in Europe and around the world to reject these poorly tested foods.”

We might also observe that there is no scientific justification for the following:

*Preventing Iran from having a nuclear research program
*Banning human cloning
*Disallowing performance enhancing drugs in athletics

Decisions about such issues are political decisions based on values, not science. The WTO decision is apparently based on an assumption that EU decision making about GM foods should be based only on a narrow calculus. This is of course a value judgment about what factors should matter and which ones should not in making a decision about GM foods. But shouldn’t citizens in a democracy have the right to make decisions in any which way that they choose? As suggested above, there is of course no scientific justifications for focusing on nuclear research in Iran, banning human cloning, or disallowing performance enhancing drugs in athletics. Each of these issues involves societal decisions about what is right, what is wrong, what is appropriate, what is desired. In short, none of these decisions are determined by science, but by our values and how they are manifested in policy and power. The WTO needs a broader perspective. On this issue, the EU is in the right.

Posted on February 8, 2006 01:46 AM View this article | Comments (21) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

Transhumanism

James Wilsdon of DEMOS, a U.K. think tank, has a thoughtful essay (subscription required) in the Financial Times on the occasion of the release of a new DEMOS collection of essays titled Better Humans? The Politics of Human Enhancement and Life Extension. Here is an excerpt from Wilsdon’s essay:

This movement is known as transhumanism, and its central belief is that advances in science and technology will liberate us from the constraints of illness and ageing, and enable us to live longer, healthier lives. In its more modest form, transhumanism advocates the embrace of new technologies, such as smart drugs, cosmetic surgery and gene therapy, which can enhance our physical and mental capabilities and make us ‘better than well’. At the more radical end of the spectrum, you find futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, whose recent book ‘The Singularity is Near’, argues that ‘Ultimately we will merge with our technology… By the mid 2040s, the non-biological portion of our intelligence will be billions of times more capable than the biological portion.’ Such predictions have provoked a fierce reaction, both from religious and cultural conservatives, who see transhumanism as an assault on human nature, and from the liberal left, which sounds alarm bells about the implications for equality and human rights. Francis Fukuyama has gone so far as to describe transhumanism as ‘the world’s most dangerous idea’. Yet as the technologies for human enhancement start moving from the pages of science fiction into the laboratory, and eventually into the marketplace, these responses are no longer sufficient. The basic impulse behind transhumanism is a progressive one: a desire to extend current models of medicine and healthcare in ways that would enable us to live longer, fitter and more fulfilling lives. Provided that enhancement technologies are carefully regulated, and opened up to genuine public debate, there is no reason why they should not enjoy widespread public support. Most of us, given the choice, would seize the opportunity to live well beyond our allotted ‘three score years and ten’, even if this required us to take a cocktail of new drugs. The explosive growth in cosmetic surgery shows just how quickly attitudes can change, with enhancements that were once taboo now part of the regular diet of TV makeovers and lifestyle magazines. The big question is who will bring human enhancement and life extension into the mainstream. Politicians and business leaders, who are already struggling to cope with rising pensions and healthcare costs, may be understandably reluctant to speculate about a world in which we all live (and work?) well into our second century. . . What is politics for if not to improve the quality – and length – of our lives? The transhumanists have done us all a favour by drawing the lines of a political battle that is yet to be fought.

Read the whole report here.

Posted on February 8, 2006 12:58 AM View this article | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

January 27, 2006

How Science becomes Politics

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) provides a great example of how politicians hand off hot-button political issues to scientists, and couch that transfer in science (hat tip, Matt Nisbet).

The Washington Post reported yesterday,

After remaining mostly silent on a bill that was killed last year by a Republican-led filibuster threat, Ehrlich (R) is pushing a plan to spend $20 million next year on stem cell research. But Ehrlich is not committing himself on the question that has stirred the most controversy: whether the money should be used primarily for work on stem cells derived from human embryos or from less controversial adult stem cells Although the move has drawn some criticism, Ehrlich argued in an interview that he is acting prudently, given the evolving nature of the science. "I wasn't that good of a biology student. I'm not going to make that decision," Ehrlich said. "The point here is that the decision should be a function of the science. These are fundamentally science questions, not political questions." The governor would leave it to a state-founded technology corporation to decide whether to provide grants for work on adult stem cells or work on embryonic stems cells, which many scientists say holds greater promise but some in his party consider tantamount to abortion. Ehrlich, who has supported stem cell research since his days in Congress, said that his public silence last year masked a behind-the-scenes effort to develop an alternate approach that would both bolster the state's biotechnology sector and depoliticize a difficult issue for Republicans. "The strong pro-life members know the administration does not share their views on this issue, but we wanted to try to lower the temperature on the politics," he said. "I wanted to try to keep everyone's eye on the ball, and I believe this approach accomplishes that goal.”

Now he made claim to not know a lot about biology, but he clearly knows politics. A passage later in the story illustrates the absurdity of claiming that decisions about stem cell research are scientific not political,

Some advocates of the research say Ehrlich's plan has merit and view it as more likely to withstand opposition in the Senate. "As long as there's no preference for adult, that's fine," said Robert Johnson, a lobbyist for Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, a coalition formed during last year's debate that has primarily supported embryonic work. But the governor's posture drew criticism yesterday from sponsors of the stem cell bills. In an interview, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) was adamant that money be spent on work on embryonic stem cells, which is controversial because it involves the destruction of human embryos. Hollinger's bill would restrict research funded with state money to embryos discarded at fertility clinics and establish other rules for funding the science. "The only reason we're doing this bill is that the president has refused to allow the research to be done," Hollinger said, referring to a 2001 executive order by President Bush that set limits on the embryonic stem cell research that can be funded with federal money.

If the relevant scientific community here wants to avoid becoming the political battleground for this particular debate, then it would be wise to bounce the issue right back up to the Governor saying, “We know a lot about biology, but we know that a decision about funding stem cell research is politics not science.”

Posted on January 27, 2006 11:00 AM View this article | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

May 25, 2005

Hiding Behind the Science of Stem Cells

David Shaywitz has a nice op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal on the stem cell issue. The article is not available online. Shaywitz makes the case that the very same conservatives who decry “junk science” are hiding their moral objections to stem cell research behind scientific claims that adult stem cells are a good substitute for embryonic stem cells. Shaywitz writes:

“For true believers, of course, these scientific facts should be beside the point; if human embryonic stem cell research is morally, fundamentally, wrong, then it should be wrong, period, regardless of the consequences to medical research. If conservatives believe their own rhetoric, they should vigorously critique embryonic stem cell research on its own grounds, and not rely on an appeal to utilitarian principles. Instead, there has been a concerted effort to establish adult stem cells as a palatable alternative to embryonic stem cells. In the process, conservatives seem to have left their usual concern for junk science at the laboratory door, citing in their defense preliminary studies and questionable data that they would surely – and appropriately – have ridiculed were it not supporting their current point of view.”

I think that Shaywitz is right on here with the exception of one important point. I don’t think that conservatives (on the stem cell issue or generally) are alone in their concern over “junk science” or unique in their desire to hide behind science. People and interest groups from across the political spectrum have shown considerable willingness to engage in political battles through science. In fact, turning political debates into scientific debates is arguably one of the most robust areas of partisan agreement.

Posted on May 25, 2005 07:27 AM View this article | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

May 23, 2005

Making Sense of the Stem Cell Policy Debate

It looks like we are seeing another flare up in the debate over stem cell research. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote on this last year in and op-ed in the Rocky Mountain News:

“If you want to liven up conversation at a dinner party, ask the following question: How much money would you take for your pinkie toe?”

Read the whole op-ed here (PDF).

Posted on May 23, 2005 04:40 AM View this article | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

March 18, 2005

Defending Kass but Confirming the Conflict

On Tech Central Station James Q. Wilson, a member of the Prsident’s Council on Bioethics, has a response to Iain Murray’s TCS essay that criticized Leon Kass for advancing “political strategy aimed at achieving certain policy goals [that] renders his position as an honest broker on the issue untenable.” Wilson’s defense of Kass simply dodges the central issue and in the process implicitly confirms the impropriety of Kass simultaneous trying to serve as honest broker and lobbyist. (For background on our discussion of see this post and this post.)

Wilson writes that the Bioethics Council works hard to consider and present a wide range of views, “I have never encountered a more fair-minded chairman than Kass nor a Council composed of so many truly gifted (though philosophically divided) Council members… Try to think of another presidential council that has ever reflected such a wide range of views and expressed them with such clarity. Typically, a presidential body gets its marching orders from the White House and is composed of people whom one can predict will respond to those expectations.” This is certainly wonderful to hear but does not speak to Kass’ role in advancing a legislative agenda while serving as the Council’s chair.

On Kass’ role lobbying Congress for a particular set of policies, Wilson somewhat disingenuously characterizes Kass’ actions as normal scholarly activity, “It is especially unfair to say that Kass suffers from a conflict of interest. The charge seems to rest on a press account that Kass will work with a writer to publish some new arguments in a respectable journal.” Wilson’s interpretation of Kass’ activities is contrary to Kass’ own characterization of his activities in the Washington Post article that Wilson cites:

“Frustrated by Congress's failure to ban human cloning or place even modest limits on human embryo research, a group of influential conservatives have drafted a broad "bioethics agenda" for President Bush's second term and have begun the delicate task of building a political coalition to support it… "We have lost much ground," states the document, which congressional aides said Kass has been championing in meetings on the Hill… Kass emphasized yesterday that his effort to craft a new legislative agenda on cloning, stem cells and related issues was independent of his role as chairman of Bush's bioethics council and that no federal resources have been used by the group, which he said has no name.”

Wilson then says, somewhat bizarrely, “[Murray’s] criticism is akin to demanding that judges never give speeches or write articles because somehow their independence will be jeopardized. If one employed that argument when one was selecting a chairman, one would have to recruit a philosophical eunuch who had managed to keep all thoughts to himself. But who would hire such a cipher? (All right, there is Justice David Souter, but apart from him . . .?)” We encourage you to have a look for yourself at Kass’ ”journal article”, which is titled, “Bioethics for the Second Term: Legislative Recommendations.” It will be exciting to see what “respected journal” publishes this “article.” Wilson also makes the fatuous assertion that, “There is literally no truth in the argument that Kass's own views were "more likely to get a hearing than those of other well-qualified bioethicists."” This would seem to be contradicted by the fact that both the Washington Post and Science magazine both reported on Kass’ legislative agenda, and did not report on the legislative agenda of anyone else. Does Wilson really think that people are dumb enough to fall for this sort of argument by smoke and mirrors?

The fact that Wilson has sought to provide a defense of Kass but either was unable or unwilling to address the central issue of Kass’ conflict of interest says to me that in preparing his defense of Kass, Wilson must have decided that there is not an effective or acceptable case to be made for Kass to wear two hats at the same time.

Posted on March 18, 2005 08:03 AM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

March 16, 2005

More on Politics and Bioethics

Last week we made the case that the development and promotion of a “legislative agenda” by Leon Kass, the chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, meant that he was (mis)using his role as the Council’s chair to advocate a special interest agenda.

“If Kass wants to be a political advocate, then he should resign his position of the Bioethics Council and join one of the many conservative advocacy groups that are truly independent of the Bioethics Council. If he wants to serve as an honest broker to the nation as chair of the Bioethics Council, then he should recognize that this means deferring his desire to serve as a political advocate advancing special interests. But he does have to choose, because he can’t do both.”

This week the Washington Post reports that Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) has asked the Inspector general of HHS to investigate Kass’ actions,

“… At issue is whether Kass acted inappropriately by helping to lead an effort to craft a legislative "agenda" for Congress that would place new restrictions on embryo research and other areas of reproductive science. In the letter, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) expressed concern that Kass may have misrepresented his private views as those of the council and that the council's resources may have been used in the effort. The effort brings "a cloud of suspicion" on the bioethics council, she wrote. Kass said he has been very clear with people that his work for the new "bioethics agenda" for Congress -- still in its early stages -- is independent of his work for the council. "No council resources or council time was used," he said yesterday. The inspector general typically takes two weeks to decide whether to take on a congressional request, a spokeswoman said.”

Kass’ legislative agenda is available here from the American Journal of Bioethics Editors Blog, who write,

“…It contains the grand plan for all sorts of bans and restrictions of science to be enacted by the U.S. Congress, and has been unabashedly promoted by Kass - who says that he is not acting as Presidential Council Chair during his lobbying efforts. The agenda is sweeping, conservative, and odd enough that it has angered Republicans in Congress more than Democrats; the latter are beside themselves with joy at watching the right wing rip the Kass document to shreds for being too liberal. Democrats should not be too giddy - much of what is here could be pushed through the executive branch and left to the courts and states to reject.”

The AJB Editors Blog weighed in with a perspective on Kass’ actions similar to that expressed here:

“It isn't that it is a surprising announcement, and the incredible gall of it requires no comment, but what is amazing to most … is how stupid a political move this is for the PCB. This morning, Gladys White put it best on MCW-Bioethics: “I have an old-fashioned idea. That idea is that chairs of Presidential bioethics councils/commissions should, once appointed, go about their business with as much objectivity and neutrality as they can muster in order to facilitate the work of the council and ultimately to serve the American people. I have this idea because in years past it has been the case that chairing these councils or commissions has been viewed as a distinct honor and well worth the price of setting aside personal views at least for the duration of the group's work… Directly lobbying Congress in a role "that is independent of the role bioethics chair" accompanied by a group which "has no name," is unprecedented, unwise and in my view, unacceptable for the chair of a bioethics commission. I don't see how one person can function as a hard-headed lobbyist at one moment and as a neutral objective, bioethics chair at the next. I don't think that this latest development bodes well for the work of the current council or for the future of independent bioethics analysis in the U.S. and I am very sorry to see it.””

And Iain Murray writing at Tech Central Station expresses similar sentiments,

“[Kass’] recent decision to draft a political strategy aimed at achieving certain policy goals renders his position as an honest broker on the issue untenable… The merits of Dr. Kass's preferred policies are irrelevant here. The problem is that by hitching his star to a particular set of policies he has breached the trust set in him by the President, whose executive order creating the council asked it to "explore specific ethical and policy questions related to these developments; [and] to provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues." At the very least, by sheer virtue of his position, his favored policies are more likely to get a hearing than those of other well-qualified bioethicists who do not have the authority of such an office …Such a prospect would seriously undermine in the principle of "procedural justice" -- the right of all sides of a political argument to be heard without fear or favor.”

I have yet to see anyone actually defend Kass’ actions in similar venues, though I’d welcome pointers. I’d also welcome comments and input on Rep. Degette’s letter to HHS IG (does anyone have a copy?) and the legal basis for her complaints. Of course, my objections, and those cited above, go far beyond any possible legal impropriety to the very core of what it means to serve on a government advisory committee and the inevitable trade offs between serving as an honest broker and political advocate.

Posted on March 16, 2005 09:22 AM View this article | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

March 09, 2005

Politics and Bioethics Advice

Imagine for a moment that the President convenes an advisory committee to provide guidance on the future of the Hubble Space Telescope. The committee is created by executive order and a chair of the committee is selected based on her extensive experience with NASA. The charge to the committee is not to develop consensus recommendations but to fully and fairly explore a range of options and their consequences.

Consider further that the chair of the committee decided to get together with some of her close friends outside the committee in the aerospace industry to develop a white paper advocating a single approach to dealing with Hubble that would advance the interest of her friends, writing in the white paper “we now have an chance to advance our special interests over others and we should take advantage of this opportunity.”

From where I sit this would be completely inappropriate behavior by the committee chair. She would seeking to exploit her position as an honest broker providing guidance to policy makers by using her role as committee chair to gain advantage in political debate. Honest brokering in support of common interests is simply incompatible with political advocacy in support of special interests. The committee chair has to choose.

Back to the real world. Yesterday’s Washington Post reported a situation exactly parallel to the scenario described above. In the real world case, it is the President’s Council on Bioethics whose chair is Leon Kass. The Post reports,

“Frustrated by Congress's failure to ban human cloning or place even modest limits on human embryo research, a group of influential conservatives have drafted a broad "bioethics agenda" for President Bush's second term and have begun the delicate task of building a political coalition to support it. The loose-knit group of about a dozen people -- largely spearheaded by Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and Eric Cohen, editor of the New Atlantis, a conservative journal of technology and society -- have been meeting since December. Their goal, according to a document circulating among members and others, is to devise "a bold and plausible 'offensive' bioethics agenda" to replace a congressional strategy that has been "too narrowly focused and insufficiently ambitious. We have today an administration and a Congress as friendly to human life and human dignity as we are likely to have for many years to come," reads the document, which was obtained by The Washington Post. "It would be tragic if we failed to take advantage of this rare opportunity to enact significant bans on some of the most egregious biotechnical practices."”

Irrespective of the pluses or minuses of Kass’ group’s proposal, this is simply unethical and a clear example of the politicization of the bioethics panel. Kaas is clearly trading on his position as chair of the President’s council to advance a narrow political agenda.

The Post reports that Kass tries to excuse this clear conflict of interest in narrow financial terms, “Kass emphasized yesterday that his effort to craft a new legislative agenda on cloning, stem cells and related issues was independent of his role as chairman of Bush's bioethics council and that no federal resources have been used by the group, which he said has no name.”

For someone with expertise in ethics this is particularly ironic. (On the issue of independence, consider that if it were, say, a philosophy professor from a university in Texas developing a proposal on bioethics, it is unlikely that the proposal would be reported about in the Washington Post.) If Kass wants to be a political advocate, then he should resign his position of the Bioethics Council and join one of the many conservative advocacy groups that are truly independent of the Bioethics Council. If he wants to serve as an honest broker to the nation as chair of the Bioethics Council, then he should recognize that this means deferring his desire to serve as a political advocate advancing special interests. But he does have to choose, because he can’t do both.

Posted on March 9, 2005 09:32 AM View this article | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

February 16, 2005

Frankenfood or Fearmongering?

FOSEP, the Forum on Science, Ethics and Policy, is hosted by the Office of Research at the University of Washington, and run by a dedicated group of University of Washington graduate students. They recently sponsored a talk by Michael Rodemeyer of the Pew Initiative on Agricultural Biotechnology on genetically modified foods. The talk is now available online.

Talk details:

"Michael Rodemeyer, J.D.
Executive Director,
Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology

Frankenfood or Fearmongering?
The Science and Politics of Genetically Modified Foods

Friday, February 4, 2005

Last year, American farmers grew more genetically-modified (GM) crops than ever before. About 75% of the processed foods in U.S. stores are estimated to contain ingredients derived from GM crops. Concerns have been raised about food safety and environmental risks, the ethics of seed patenting, and economic impact of GM crops on small farmers. The controversy has spilled over into the international trade arena, leading to a U.S. trade complaint against the EU, where consumer opposition to biotech foods is strong.

Few technologies have generated so much global confusion and conflict as GM food. Why is this technology so controversial? The lecture will review the current state of science on GM crops and discuss the key role of values in shaping public attitudes and the different political responses to the technology around the world."

Posted on February 16, 2005 10:05 AM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

January 11, 2005

A Couple of Newsletters and Essays

Our newsletter, Ogmius, is out today with an essay by Mike Rodemeyer, Director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, titled, “Science, Genetically Modified Foods, and the Rumsfeld Doctrine”. He writes,

“The lack of prior experience with biotech foods, combined with the perceived lack of benefit and the absence of any trusted proxy on the safety issue, has led to the current skepticism about safety and hostility toward biotech foods in Europe and other parts of the world. More assurances from scientists that such concerns are misplaced are unlikely to change the dynamic. Fears about the “unknown unknowns” can be overcome only through experience and trust, neither of which can be earned overnight.”

Read the whole thing here.

ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes has their email newsletter just out as well. The feature a perspective by Oxford University’s Steve Rayner titled, The International Challenge of Climate Change: Thinking Beyond Kyoto. He writes,

“Unfortunately, support for Kyoto has become a litmus test for determining those who take the threat of climate change seriously. But, between Kyoto’s supporters and those who scoff at the dangers of leaving greenhouse gas emissions unchecked, there has been a tiny minority of commentators and analysts convinced of the urgency of the problem while remaining profoundly sceptical of the proposed solution. Their voices have largely gone unheard. Climate change policy has become a victim of the sunk costs fallacy. We are told that Kyoto is “the only game in town”. However, it is plausible to argue that implementing Kyoto has distracted attention and effort from real opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect society against climate impacts.”

Read the whole thing here.

August 02, 2004

Op-Ed on Stem Cell Science and Policy

I had an op-ed in Saturday’s Rocky Mountain News in which I try to make sense of the current debate over stem cells. It starts out like this:

“If you want to liven up conversation at a dinner party, ask the following question: How much money would you take for your pinkie toe?”

Read the whole thing here. Your comments are welcomed.

Posted on August 2, 2004 08:41 AM View this article | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology | Health

July 28, 2004

NRC Report on Genetically Engineered Foods

The NRC is releasing a report today on risks posed by genetically engineered foods. Media coverage suggests different interpretations of what the report says.

A New York Times story today suggests some confusion about whether or not the report says that GE crops are more risky than foods modified using other techniques:

“Genetically engineered crops do not pose health risks that cannot also arise from crops created by other techniques, including conventional breeding … the report said that genetic engineering and other techniques used to create novel crops could result in unintended, harmful changes to the composition of food … The report said that genetic engineering was more likely to cause unintended effects than the other techniques used to develop plants except for the mutation-inducing technique.”

An A.P. story in the Washington Post characterizes the study as follows:

“Federal regulators should look more closely at the potential health effects of some genetically modified plants before they can be grown as commercial crops, a scientific advisory panel said yesterday. It also said regulators should check for potential food safety problems after people eat the products. The report by a committee of the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine said regulators should target tighter scrutiny at genetically engineered varieties that have greater levels of biological differences from current plants.”

The report release will be carried via a webcast today at 11AM Eastern.

Posted on July 28, 2004 09:36 AM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

July 01, 2004

Science, Art, and Safety

For the past several weeks a Buffalo grand jury has been investigating the bio-artist Steven Kurtz, and in the end, as reported in the NY Times, indicted him on 4 counts of mail and wire fraud for illegally obtaining samples and equipment.

Is this a case of bio-terrorism concerns pushing a case further than needed? Kurtz is a well-known artist and professor, who's legitimate use of biological samples and equipment seems clear. However, how should authorities react upon finding a working lab within a suburban home?

After following the case for a couple weeks now, I'm surprised at the indictments and somewhat surprised that the case made it to a grand jury at all. An investigation was clearly in order, though the amount of effort put into this one seems a waste of time and money. Regardless, the story is sure to continue and spark debate on the appropriate use of science in art and society and what biosafety is all about (see today's post).

Posted on July 1, 2004 09:50 AM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Ryen, T.S. | Biotechnology

I Beg to Differ: Biosafety

The Science Times of the New York Times has an interesting new feature called "I Beg to Differ."  I assume that it is focusing on some perspective that is somehow out of the mainstream related to science or science policy.

In this week's column, William J. Broad profiles Dr. Richard H. Ebright of Rutgers's Waksman Institute.  Dr. Ebright's perspective can be gleaned from this excerpt:

"The government and many security experts say one crucial step is to build more high-security laboratories, where scientists can explore the threats posed not only by deadly natural germs, but also by designer pathogens - genetically modified superbugs that could outdo natural viruses and bacteria in their killing power. To this end, the Bush administration has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to erect such laboratories in Boston; Galveston, Tex.; and Frederick, Md., among other places, increasing eightfold the overall space devoted to the high-technology buildings.  Dr. Ebright, on the other hand, views the plans as a recipe for catastrophe. The laboratories, called biosafety level 4, or BSL-4, are costly, unnecessary and dangerous, he says.  "I'm concerned about them from the standpoint of science, safety, security, public health and economics," he added in an interview. "They lose on all counts."  Dr. Ebright has no illusions about the likelihood of biological warfare. "I think there's a very real threat of bioweapons use," he said."

The article does a nice job of laying out policy alternatives and why they matter.  Good for the Times for breaking some new ground in science policy journalism.  I am looking forward to future stories.

Posted on July 1, 2004 08:54 AM View this article | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

May 26, 2004

Book Review

Robert Lee Holtz of the Los Angeles Times reviews a new book in American Scientist titled “Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?” by Sheldon Krimsky. Here is an excerpt from the review:

“Many scientists, particularly those doing biomedical research, are no longer looking solely for the truth—they are also seeking their fortunes. And when the pursuit of commercial advantage compromises scientific integrity, the public safety and public trust suffer.

As arbiters of technical disputes, scientists in America contribute almost as much to public policy, regulation and law as to basic research. For example, they regularly testify in front of legislators, who are now grappling with cloning, genomics and stem cell biology. Advances already on the horizon promise a control over human biology and behavior that makes today's innovations seem primitive. Yet it is becoming increasingly hard for Congress, the courts, the general public and the media to find knowledgeable scientists without any financial stake in a biomedical controversy or regulatory debate.

That difficulty is what so concerns Sheldon Krimsky, a policy analyst at Tufts University who for two decades has been one of the country's leading experts on the consequences of the commercialization of science. Krimsky has distilled a professional lifetime of experience as a skeptical scholar of the changing scientific culture into a new book, Science in the Private Interest. Shrewd, unsparing and never shrill, this book ought to be obligatory reading for anyone who values the role that science plays in the political life of the United States.”

The whole review is here.

Posted on May 26, 2004 08:15 AM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

May 25, 2004

Hiding Behind Science

Dan Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University (and a visiting scholar at our Center here at the University of Colorado) authored a provocative op-ed in Newsday yesterday titled Hiding Behind Science. Here is an excerpt:

“We all know that the current White House thinks that protecting embryos is more important than protecting the environment and that the profitability of chemical companies should take precedence over the potability of drinking water. No surprise here. But even if the manipulation of science at the hands of the Bush government is more egregious than in previous administrations, the real problem is the illusion that these controversies can and should be resolved scientifically, and by scientists…

… the problem with these attacks on the Bush administration is that they hide behind the sanctity of science to advance an agenda that is itself political. What we do, or don't do, about global warming (or stem cell research, regulation of toxic chemicals, protection of endangered species . . .) will be a reflection of how we choose among competing values, and making such choices is not the job of science, but of democratic politics. Science can alert us to problems, and can help us understand how to achieve our goals once we have decided them; but the goals themselves can emerge only from a political process in which science should have no special privilege.

But neither the Bush administration nor its scientific critics want to give up on the pretense that these controversies are about science. To do so would be to abandon the high ground created when one can claim to have ‘the facts’ on one's side. The resulting charade, where everyone pretends that science can save us from politics, undermines science by turning it into nothing more than ammunition for opposing ideologies. Even more dangerously, it damages democracy by concealing what is really at stake - our values and our interests - behind a veil of technical language and competing expertise.”

Read the whole thing here.

May 21, 2004

Mixed Messages on GMOs

This week the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization issued a report that said “Biotechnology holds great promise for agriculture in developing countries, but so far only farmers in a few developing countries are reaping these benefits.” In a press release FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf said:

"Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called 'orphan crops' such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and tef that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people. Other barriers that prevent the poor from accessing and fully benefiting from modern biotechnology include inadequate regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poorly functioning markets and seed delivery systems, and weak domestic plant breeding capacity."

On May 10, Monsanto announced that it was shelving for the time being its plans to develop genetically modified wheat. In a press release Carl Casale, executive vice president of Monsanto said:

“As a result of our portfolio review and dialogue with wheat industry leaders, we recognize the business opportunities with Roundup Ready spring wheat are less attractive relative to Monsanto's other commercial priorities… This technology adds value for only a segment of spring wheat growers, resulting in a lack of widespread wheat industry alignment, unlike the alignment we see in other crops where biotechnology is broadly applied. These factors underscore the difficulty of bringing new technologies to the wheat market at this time… This decision allows us to defer commercial development of Roundup Ready wheat, in order to align with the potential commercialization of other biotechnology traits in wheat, estimated to be four to eight years in the future."

And this week the European Union announced it was allowing genetically modified sweet corn into its markets. EU David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection said in a press release:

“GM sweet corn has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world. It has been scientifically assessed as being as safe as any conventional maize. Food safety is therefore not an issue, it is a question of consumer choice. The new EU rules on GMOs require clear labelling and traceability. Labelling provides consumers with the information they need to make up their own mind. They are therefore free to choose what they want to buy. The Commission is acting responsibly based on stringent and clear legislation.”

Posted on May 21, 2004 12:36 PM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

May 05, 2004

Biodefense Science and Technology Policy

In an April 22, 2004 article (subscription required) The Economist suggests that U.S. biodefense science policies and biodefense technology policies are sorely lacking.

The article notes of the challenges of biodefense:

“If terrorists had placed smallpox, rather than explosives, on the Madrid trains that blew up last month, tens of thousands, maybe millions, could have died instead of the 190 people who did…. America's bioterrorism experts reckon that close to 100 new diagnostics, vaccines and treatments are needed urgently. By most estimates, building these biodefences will take at least 5-10 years and $50 billion. And if America's highly innovative drug industry does not rise to the challenge, such efforts that are underway elsewhere will not fill the gap.”

On the biotechnology industry:

“Few firms are attracted by the meagre development grants doled out by the Pentagon, which largely oversees America's biodefence effort, nor by the accompanying paperwork and bureaucracy. “

On the Bush Administration:

“The Bush administration's main programme, Project BioShield, was announced in January 2003, but is stalled in Congress and largely ignored by the drug industry. A fraction of BioShield's proposed $6 billion budget has been advanced to help pay for biodefence research and development. Most of this money has gone to government and university laboratories, which have little experience of developing products. Besides, even $6 billion is nowhere near enough.”

On Congress:

“In December 2001, a bill known as Lieberman-Hatch was tabled that would have bypassed the Pentagon procurement system, introducing a sweeping new performance-based, market-oriented system of incentives designed to tempt the drug industry to take biodefence seriously. The bill would have introduced patent protections and restrictions on product liability, plus industry-standard profit margins for products that successfully make the journey from research to stockpile. Alas, the bill remains stalled—not least because of the feeling in Congress that it would be widely seen as a give-away to an already pampered drug industry.”

Bottom line …

“Yet without something like Lieberman-Hatch and its real-world market incentives, biodefence medicines and test kits simply will not be made. Let's hope they are never needed.”

Of course, hope is no substitute for effective biodefense science and technology policies.

Posted on May 5, 2004 11:00 AM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Biotechnology

April 28, 2004

Beyond the Dustbowl: BT in Africa

With southern Africa facing its fourth consecutive growing season of low crop yields and food insecurity, genetically modified crops and food aid are sure to be front-burner issues for yet another year.

For the past three years, southern Africa has faced debilitating drought and a resultant demand for both food aid and drought-resistant crops. Consequently, the EU-US led debate over genetic modification (GM) has spread to Africa, thereby engaging African leaders and diverting attention from other severe agricultural problems like poor soil, a failing transportation infrastructure, and unwelcoming markets for crops from subsistence farmers.

At its core, this is a technology policy debate about willingness to accept risk. Yet as both sides politicize the issue within Africa, they drag African leaders into what the New York Times called "an undeclared trade dispute between the EU with its powerful environmental activists and the US and its influential biotechnology industry."

The result is an African GM debate as politically charged as ours. On one side lie leaders calling for agricultural biotechnology as a means to end hunger altogether. And on the other lie leaders who see agricultural biotechnology as "poison" sent to exploit the third world, even in the form of
food aid.

As this politicization continues, African agricultural development lies in limbo, waiting for an unlikely solution to the bickering. And yet, it cannot wait. African soils are severely nutrient depleted such that they can barely provide the crops necessary for a single season, let alone a surplus for seasons of drought.

As population increases rapidly, farmers try to meet increasing food needs by intensifying land use without properly managing the land, which results in soil stripped of nutrients. In 1998 the UN Food and Agricultural Organization released a report stating that "sub-Saharan Africa risks being marginalized from the mainstream world economy because of failure of many countries in the region to adopt environmentally sustainable
agricultural practices to improve productivity and counter the process of natural resource degradation."

These problems are severe but they have solutions. Evidence lies in the American Great Plains. Poor African agricultural practices are reminiscent of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930's where the land, having been through decades of excessive plowing, dried and turned to dust. Dust, which was blown into the air and dumped in tons onto farms, homes, and towns. As a result, the US government intervened to teach farmers techniques that would slow rainwater runoff and improve absorption into the soil. Agriculture recovered. And last year, a drought 30% more intense than the 1930's drought plagued the same area, but without the dust bowl results.

A similar change in African agricultural practices could greatly enhance both food security and economic stability in Africa. But to get there, we must not wait for a solution to the GM debate. We must seek opportunities to decrease vulnerability to the cycle of drought now in the face of debate. Only this form of aid will last beyond this year.

Posted on April 28, 2004 06:40 PM View this article | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Posted to Author: Maricle, G. | Biotechnology



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