Yesterday, President Obama signed into law a continuing resolution aimed at keeping the federal government going amidst budget talks. However, embedded within the nearly 800 page resolution — HR933 — is Section 735, a provision that has become popularly known as the “Monsanto Protection Act”. Here is the text of Section 735 in full:
SEC. 735. In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.
Yet, I find this talking point disingenuous. If I’m reading Section 735 correctly, what’s actually being said is this: if a seed (genetically-engineered or otherwise) is petitioned to the Secretary of Agriculture’s office as needing to be regulated, that the unregulated (but legal) sale of the seed shall be allowed to continue until such time as the Secretary of Agriculture has time to investigate whether or not the petition is warranted.
It doesn’t hand over power to Monsanto, or any other company in the business of producing genetically-engineered food. It simply gives food-growers and developers the ability to do business until the matter can be resolved. Or, in other words, it simply establishes that a food is regulated when the Secretary of Agriculture’s office can rule that a food should be regulated, not when there is a proposal submitted that a food should be regulated.
So, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
Look, I get it. This whole controversy isn’t based on farmers’ rights, or on economics. It’s based on mass hysteria that arises when people hear “genetically modified food” and get an immediate mental image of this:
There are too many critics of GMOs that believe, or at least perpetuate the common fear, that genetically modified foods are some sort of disease-ridden mutant byproduct of science gone horribly wrong. They picture ears of corn that glow in the dark, beef that can cause kids to prematurely undergo puberty, and tomatoes that grow to the size of houses.
These ideas couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The field of genetically-engineered food has two primary focuses: 1) to increase the efficiency and yield of crops with a particular emphasis on modifying foods to survive climates unfriendly to conventional agricultural practices, and 2) to increase the nutritional content of commonly-eaten foods to promote human survival and health without having to significantly modify diet, particularly in areas of the world where food is already hard to come by, let alone sufficient food to meet nutritional demands.
So, for example, genetically modified rice strains developed in part through the University of Arizona are significantly more resistant to drought than unmodified rice plants, producing healthy crops even with little watering.
The middle genetically-modified rice plant is being grown under drought conditions, compared to an unmodified rice plant on the right.
Sure, we’ve all seen the commercials: $1 a day could feed X number of starving children. But, think of the potency if we could export agricultural technology to these regions of the world, so that we’re not just feeding folks who need food, but arming folks with the tools to be able to grow the food to feed themselves.
Yet, I was shocked to read on Wikipedia in research for this blog post, that some critics of GMOs actually argue — unethically, in my opinion — that using genetically-engineered crops to help solve the world famine problem is counter-productive because this only encourages a global and unsustainable population boom. Implicitly, hungry people in the Third World should be allowed to die to keep the global population of humans low.
People who think the world can afford to ignore technology that increases agricultural yield are people who’ve never had to struggle with country-wide hunger. These are people who are used to a grocery store on every corner, and a McDonald’s drive-through a short car-ride away. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the United States and Canada, as well as parts of Europe, forget how good we have it when it comes to food; we take for granted a food abundance that others couldn’t even imagine as being normal.
I remember when I was a kid, my uncle — a well-educated, modestly affluent architect living in Taipei, Taiwan — came to visit us in Canada. I remember that we took him grocery shopping one afternoon. This supermarket — a Sun Valley grocery store (a Canadian chain that I just found out is now closed — was one of the highlights of my uncle’s trip. He walked into the front door and was overwhelmed by the piles of fresh produce, just sitting out for the choosing. He couldn’t believe the amount of it, the diversity of it, the freshness and the size, and how most of it was just waiting to be purchased or even — god forbid — thrown away. My uncle had great access to food in Taipei, and even he couldn’t believe how plentiful crops are in the West. A trip to Sun Valley market was one of his long-standing traditions every time he came to visit afterwards.
Yet, when’s the last time the produce aisle at your local Stop & Shop brought a tear of joy to your eye?
The second criticism against genetically-modified foods is that it’s unsafe. This criticism I find to be particularly spurious. The scientific community has pretty much reached a consensus on this subject: genetically-engineered foods are just as safe as non-engineered foods for human consumption; which is to say, there’s no scientific evidence supporting the notion that GMOs cause cancer or some other such nonsense.
And indeed, if one takes a minute to think about this, one sees how the conclusion makes sense. All we need to do is consider what a GMO actually is, and how it’s made, to realize that the risk to humans is low. In short, a scientist finds a gene from within a plant’s existing genome or within a related plant (or, occasionally but rarely, animal) species and introduces a modification into the target plant’s genome to either modify the existing gene or to get it to express the new gene. The scientist does this by injecting the plant with the new genetic material, and growing offspring that contain the specific, designed mutation.
An engineered plant is not dangerous. It contains no active virus or other particle remnants of the gene delivery system. It is, in essence, a rice plant that has been designed to express a special gene to alter the plant’s behaviour so that it behaves in a desirable fashion.
And I’m pretty sure there’s no interest in generating an ear of corn with evil eyes and a toothy grin.
I should know; I spend my days working with genetically-engineered organisms, and I’m no more afraid of them as I am of a regular old house mouse.
Using genetic-engineering to produce a mutant strain of plant is no different than if conventional cross-fertilization techniques were used to generate a mutant strain — a technique that has given us, among other foods, the pomelo, the grapefruit, and virtually every kind of apple you’ve ever eaten. Incidentally, this is also how every strain of dog ever was anyone’s pet came to be. Yet, people are afraid of genetic engineering when in the guise of science, and are not even remotely alarmed when it comes in the guise of agriculture.
Eating a genetically-engineered rice plant is no more dangerous than eating a head of broccoli; both are mutant forms of their native plants that have been engineered (in one case, directly, and in the other case through generations of specialized breeding) to favour certain traits over others. Neither of these plants will give you — nor should they ever be suspected of giving you — cancer. I mean, really, there’s about as much danger of this as there is of eating a stalk of celery and being afraid you’re going to turn into one.
All that being said, there’s obviously going to be some lasting concerns over the integration of genetically-engineered foods into our society. Do I think that genetically-engineered foods should be labelled? Absolutely, but along with a label describing the extent of the engineering. I think that informed consumers breeds responsible consumers.
And, certainly, I don’t think there should be any measure to eliminate federal power to regulate GMOs, or any foods. Not only should the federal government be able to regulate foods in the event of a demonstrated health and safety risk, but regulation is also essential to mitigate other real dangers of GMOs. For example, crops engineered to produce antibiotics that reduce disease risks that can wipe out an entire season’s crops can also have profound impacts on the local biodiversity, and runs the risk of producing antibiotic-resistant strains of disease. Our society already suffers from an over-dependence on antibiotic usage; its infiltration into the agricultural industry is worrisome. Finally, robust crops run the danger of becoming invasive to their local environment; this is also a risk that can be minimized through regulation.
But, I’ve had quite enough of the hype and fear-mongering over genetically-modified foods, particularly when the drum that is widely sounded is so scientifically unfounded. And I really can’t stand the argument that misguided fears over genetically-engineered foods trumps worldwide hunger, and people who are dying from it.
Somebody at CNBC has their head so far up their own arse they can see daylight from the other end. They have just published the most inane and poorly researched “Top 10″ list of 2013. And it’s January 4th.
And clearly this interview was conducted while Tony Lee (above) was still hung over from New Year’s Eve reveling.
The first clue that this “Top 10″ list is bogus? Least stressful job #10 is “drill press operator”. Because operating heavy machinery on a busy factory line is clearly a low stress, low physical risk, kind of job.
Because no one every lost a limb doing this.
Moving on, Lee asserts that Laboratory Technician is #5 least stressful job. Why?
Due to the critical importance of getting the analyses of these tests right, there isn’t a lot of pressure.
“They’re given the latitude to do the job at their own pace because it’s important that they get it right,” Lee said.
Wait, what? I was a lab tech before I went to grad school. And yes, there’s a lot of importance placed on getting lab experiments right. But there’s also a lot of importance placed on getting lab experiments done. Which is where the pressure comes in: you have to get those important experiments right as fast as you possibly can. And you get blamed when they go wrong (even if they went wrong because the machine the lab bought is a piece of junk bought on the scientific-equivalent of Craigslist).
Super low stress.
Y’know when a lab technician is enthusiastically grinning while pipetting? When they’re actually an underpaid model taking pictures for a stock photo website.
But the true kicker was the job that went to the top of the list: University Professor. Let’s check out the explanation that Lee gives in it’s full, epic glory:
And the winner of Least Stressful Job of 2013 is … university professor!
(Cue the commencement music.)
Professor is a newcomer to the list this year, and it shot straight to the top.
“If you look at the criteria for stressful jobs, things like working under deadlines, physical demands of the job, environmental conditions hazards, is your life at risk, are you responsible for the life of someone else, they rank like ‘zero’ on pretty much all of them!” Lee said.
Plus, they’re in total control. They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach. They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom. They are the managers of their own stress level.
The most stressful thing about being a professor?
“Interacting with other professors!” Lee said.
You’ve got to be kidding me. University professors — and, I mean, recently hired, fresh-out-of-graduate-school, trying to earn tenure professors, are in the “least stressful” job of 2013? I mean, it’s true, professors aren’t typically at risk of being crushed by heavy machinery, but neither is an accountant.
This is the picture that was included with the entry for “university professor” on that top ten list. Because classrooms are always full of eager students, sitting at the front of the class enthusiastically vying to answer a question while a game-show host-looking professor grins and points at a chalkboard. It’s never a sparsely populated room of unruly, hungover teenagers texting in a corner if they bothered to show up at all.
Lee has apparently never actually spoken to a university professor in his life, if he’s completely unaware of the fact that class teaching load is not something that professors are in control of. Professors are told what classes they will be teaching, and recent hires are often given the most difficult, unruly, and time-consuming classes to teach. No professor is in “total control”, getting to “teach as many classes as they want” or “what they want to teach”. Someone has to teach the intellectually-stimulating introductory biology class, that has to be offered four times throughout the week just to accommodate the hundreds of students who have to take it every year. Guess who gets that course? The new professor.
Lee suggests that professors can waltz into a classroom and “reign” over students. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s the students who reign over teachers, hitting them with mid-semester and year-end evaluations that are the only measure by which professors are graded for their performance. And students, by-and-large, don’t evaluate professors based on their ability to teach and whether or not the course was challenging, but based on whether or not they grasped the material. These two are not the same things.
Oh, and while professors are teaching all those classes, they’re also under stress to publish articles as often as possible in order to keep their jobs. Because the awesome bonus of the university professor job position is that you have to teach a bunch of classes, but you’re not even given credit in your job performance review on whether or not you’re teaching all those classes (outside of whether or not your students liked you). You are judged based on how often you publish in the hours outside your teaching. You are judged based on how much data you were able to collect in lab. You are judged based on the amount of federal grant money you bring into the university.
And you have a piddly five years to prove it (one year of which is typically non-productive because you have to spend it setting up your new lab and hiring a technician).
(Update: Cayden also raised the stresses of being an adjunct professor in the comments section; the comment is worth quoting in full. “I mean “university professor” may also encompass a lot of different kinds of appointments. I’m an adjunct. I make ~$2500 a course a semester to teach 35-40 people something I don’t choose. If I lose one of my two classes, I lose my health insurance (which I still pay for). I could be randomly fired (er…sorry, non-renewed) for anything at all. I’m 25 and I’m going grey, and that’s no coincidence.”)
So, university professor as the “least stressful” job of 2013? I call bullshit. Massive, massive amounts of bullshit.
University professors (and all of us in academia, actually) do this job because we love it. Because we are passionate about our subject matter, and about teaching and mentoring students. But, none of us — not a single one — believes that this is an easy, low-stress job. There’s a really, really good reason why the physical sciences are hemorrhaging graduate students who are leaving academia for industry positions: there’s a growing sentiment among the younger generation that because of the competitiveness of the funding environment, the high pressure to publish, the lack of control over teaching load, and the relatively low salary, the stresses of doing the job of an academic professor are not worth the pay-off, any more.
On the other hand, clearly, the least stressful job of 2013 is “Random Blogger Who Writes for Career Websites”. Because, apparently you can be completely unqualified, know absolutely nothing about your subject matter, and still get your steaming pile of horse dung published by a mainstream news outlet.
Science is way too cool for your shitty reporting.
I get that you are too-often overlooked. Unlike the gritty, seasoned crimebeat reporter who’s seen it all; the cynical, disillusioned-with-the-Process political editorialist who delights in swapping gossip by another name; or, the airbrushed, vapid and plastic news anchor whose only job is to provide a pleasing visual for delivery of what it says on the Teleprompter — your job is thankless and tough. You fill the online equivalents of “under-the-fold” news with Readers’ Digest versions of science articles, and mostly to justify your employers’ touting of its health-conscious positive news reporting.
And most frustratingly, you can’t even write about the genuinely interesting science. Rather than to talk about nanoparticle-based targeted drug delivery systems, bioengineered immunofluorescence-based molecular force transducers, or significant breakthroughs in our understanding of mTOR signaling, you’ve instead written countless stories about how a glass of wine is good for you at night (except when it’s not), how sex and chocolate can make you happy (albeit messy if consumed simultaneously), and how exercise is good for you (as long as you do ‘enough’).
But, please understand: in a day and age when most people want science parsed down to a simple yes-or-no answer about how to live one’s life as “healthy” as possible, when most people don’t realize that scientists contribute more than long droning diatribes about the mating behaviour of monkeys, and when most laymen don’t realize that science is cool and fascinating, you are one of science’s few remaining hopes.
Unlike most scientists, you have the ability (if not currently the interest) to write about compelling science news. You have access to readership that even the most high-impact factor journals like Science and Nature could only dream of. You have the capacity to write about how (and more importantly why) landing a rover on Mars will advance science, about how (and why) the Large Hadron Collider can change our fundamental understandings of the world around us, about how (and why) climate change is both a scientific fact and a solveable dilemma (scientifically if not politically), and about how (and why) stem cell research may provide the key to a host of diverse diseases that currently plaque humankind.
We are currently in an era when science knows a whole heck of a lot about the world around us. And yet, popular understanding of fundamental scientific breakthroughs lags far behind the leading edge of scientific discovery. Few Americans even understand basics of physics, chemistry, or even their own biology — fewer still are interested in exploring these ideas. This general ignorance is reflected in the unending political battle over evolution, NASA funding, and even the obesity epidemic. The average American’s science IQ is shamefully low; it’s no wonder that this country is getting obliterated in the international information race.
You, popular science reporter, can help change all of this. Here’s how:
Here’s a novel idea, guys, how about writing about some actual science?
2) Write about important health & fitness science news.With the obesity epidemic afflicting roughly 1/3 of all Americans, it makes eminent sense to focus science reporting on scientific breakthroughs in obesity research and related diseases. But, here’s a tip: how about actually focusing on scientific breakthroughs in obesity research and related diseases? Ample digital ink has been spilled writing the same tired weight loss tips in the guise of pseudo-scientific reporting: how fat is bad and how 30 minutes of exercise a day can promote weight loss, and about the virtues of organic vegetables and a diet free from red meat. But — as a researcher whose work is loosely related to the obesity epidemic — there’s a lot more to obesity research than parroting the suggestions of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.
10 tips for incorporating more exercise in your daily routine. A stock photo of a pretty woman doing something ridiculous and non-strenuous with a teeny-tiny weight. The word "antioxidant". I, too, can write a popular science article.
With how prevalent obesity has become in America, isn’t it high time that Americans be treated with articles that actually bear some basic resemblance to our current scientific understanding of what obesity is and how it operates as a disorder? American readers are only stupid if you treat them like they’re stupid: we deserve articles that actually dare to treat concepts like “central adiposity”, “body fat percentage”, and “metabolic syndrome” honestly and head-on, rather than lost amid the sort of saccharine rambling best found in an episode of “Rachel Ray”. Is it, after all, hard to imagine that the first step in combating the obesity epidemic is by promoting better understanding within the American population of what obesity actually is?
3) Write about more than just health & fitness science news. Shocking as this might seem, science is devoted to far more than epidemiological studies that document the onset of various cardiovascular diseases in populations of obese vs. non-obese individuals — yet, this is the impression that I’m sure most Americans get of science based on the relative representation of science topics in popular news. A quick perusal of the most recent issue of Science reveals primary research articles that report novel findings in 1) how the photoreceptors of your eyes see, and how that vision becomes blurry in heat, 2) how the muscle fibers of our heart contracts, and 3) how populations of bacteria can form a competitive community to help them survive antibiotics. These topics may not change what you and I are going to have for dinner tonight, but they are food for our intellectual curiousity: they help inform our understanding of the world around us. They remind us that science is cool, and that there are no dumb questions.
WE LANDED A FRICKIN' SUV-SIZED ROBOT ON MARS!!! HOW HAS THIS NOT BEEN THE MAJOR HEADLINE FOR THE LAST 6 MONTHS?!?!?
And, fundamentally, American scientific IQ can only increase when we promote and encourage science and the intellectual curiousity that fuels it.
4) Read more than just the abstract. Too often, the popular science reporter will incorrectly summarize the findings of a recent journal article, often to fit the article into a preconceived popular “life lesson”. Take for example, this article which basically says going to failure — the point when a muscle can no longer lift a weight through the full range of motion of a given exercise any more — when weightlifting is almost equally beneficial whether you lift a heavy weight a fewer number of times to failure or if you lift light weights a large number of times to failure; either way, it is failure that stimulates muscle growth (although the latter type of training produces greater benefits to your muscle’s endurance capacity with some sacrifices to overall strength). A popular report of this article on LifeHacker – which like most popular science news articles only cited the journal that the article appeared in which is insufficient information to find the article in question — erroneously summarized the article as saying that light weights at an arbitrarily chosen combination of sets and reps were equally as effective as heavy weights.
Resistance training and muscle building exercises are intimidating to anyone starting to exercise and subsequently a lot of people stay away from it because they can’t imagine lifting the heavy weights. This research suggests that lifting small weights—even as low as 30% of your maximum—can have have nearly the same benefit as heavy loads. This is great news for people who shy away from muscle building resistance training because it means that small, less intimidating weights lifted with enough repetitions (three sets of 25-30 reps) have the same positive health effects as heavy ones.
The Lifehacker article basically used the article to incorrectly encourage women and/or beginner weightlifters to lift really light weights to avoid the “intimidation” factor of the gym. At not point does Lifehacker emphasize the point that the authors made in their study — that it was reaching failure, not the weight used to get there — that is important. This is an unforgivable example of shoddy reporting, and occurs because the authors of the scientific article didn’t emphasize the point regarding failure in their abstract and instead made this point in the discussion of their results in the full article. The Lifehacker article failed to grasp this important point in the science due to being the epitome of lazy reporting: they wrote a news summary based on reading only the paper’s summary.
5) Cite your sources.
If it's good enough for the Brits...
Even if you do nothing else, please cite your sources. Too often, the popular science reporter assumes that his or her reader really doesn’t care about the primary source material, and instead is completely happy to allow the popular science reporter to serve as “geek translator”. But, this is neither always the case, nor does this actually benefit the casual reader of popular science reporting. The relationship currently established by the way popular science reports are written is that the scientist and the science should be separated from the reader, because of some imagined barrier in language or understanding; but this is both insulting to the science (and encourages us to write denser articles because we know only fellow scientists will read them) and patronizing to the casual lay-reader. To encourage readers to be able to find out more by examining the primary source material requires sufficient information so that anybody can track down the original article.
Yet, surprisingly, most popular science reporters fail to provide more than the name of a science journal as their only citation; this is equivalent to me “reporting” the following:
As published in GQ Magazine, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin threatened to a group of shocked reporters that if President Obama gets re-elected, she will divorce Todd and shack up with a bear.
I challenge you to find, with that information, the article that I purport to cite. The bottom line is, you can’t — I haven’t given you sufficient information to track down any such article, even with the use of likely keywords.
And yet, this is the journalistic standard that popular science reporters hold themselves to. A clinical study of obese, metabolically healthy patients received a write-up at CNN over the weekend, and was cited as “a new study… in European Heart Journal“. The name of the primary author was also included but still I spent twenty minutes on Pubmed searching with these two pieces of information and failing to retrieve this citation before giving up. Only when the study was later linked through an online forum was I able to read about it. And yet, there’s a simple — and well-established — customary structure for citing science articles; would it be so terrible to add a simple citation (or a link to the open-link, free Pubmed database entry) to every popular science article that summarizes primary research from now on?
Popular science reporters play an important role in improving the layperson’s understanding of science, and yet, you popular science reporters seem to stubbornly cling to a tradition of lazy reporting that shamelessly perpetuates a general ignorance of science and scientific discovery in your readership. I don’t know why you do this — I would imagine that better scientific reporting would only enhance the popularity of scientific reporting, leading you to better job security and maybe a certain degree of journalistic notoriety.
In short, popular science reporter, you can do better. I’m urging you, as both a scientist and a reader of popular science reporting, please try.
By contrast, Asian Americans have reduced (but rising) prevalence of obesity compared to the overall U.S. population (although this is in conjunction with lower levels of physical activity as well). This perpetuates the stereotype that Asian Americans don’t suffer from health factors associated with obesity; consequently, we are virtually ignored when it comes to affecting public policy changes in this country that would address obesity and (perceived) obesity-related health problems.
But, not only are these diseases a growing problem for Asian Americans, a new study published this week suggests that, at least when it comes to diabetes, Asian Americans may suffer a unique, more potent form of this disease that dramatically increases mortality. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) (full text, may require institutional access) collected data from over 2000 patients diagnosed with Type II diabetes and compared the mortality of these patients based on their BMI at the time of diagnosis (i.e. “normal weight” vs “overweight” patients). The authors found a surprising trend: “normal weight” patients were more likely to die during the study period than heavier patients:
Survival rate (vertical y-axis) vs. Time (horizontal x-axis) in "normal weight" and "overweight" patients diagnosed with Type II diabetes, from Carnethon et al 2012. As you can see, "normal weight" patients have lower survival rates over time compared to their "Overweight" counterparts.
The reduced survival rate of “normal weight” Type II diabetic patients remained evident even when the authors adjusted their data to take into account smoking status, socioeconomic status, and race (White vs. Non-White; no more stratified race information was available).
Now, clearly, these data shouldn’t be used to argue that we should all attempt to become more obese. Obesity is a clear, established risk factor for diabetes, so doing this will only increase one’s likelihood of developing Type II diabetes in the first place. And, further, I don’t want to overstate the data — there’s a lot of interpretations that could be made of the author’s findings. However, these data do suggest a couple of possibilities:
1) BMI may be a terrible indicator of the health risks of obesity in Type II diabetic patients. The authors noted that a higher waist-to-hip ratio resulted in higher rates of patient death. Waist-to-hip ratio is a measure that compares a patient’s waist circumference to their hip circumference; a higher ratio means that you have higher fat deposits in your abdominal region and is a better measure of both adiposity and fat localization (which matters when it comes to how devastating that fat can be to a patient’s health). This study may indicate that it’s time for health professionals to begin the long overdue breakup with the BMI table in favour of better measures that can more accurately assess a patient’s body fat levels.
3) The data presented in this study may suggest that Type II diabetes is a convergent disease that can arise from a combination of multiple factors. While obesity may be a driving factor for the development of disease in “overweight” patients, “normal weight” patients that nonetheless develop Type II diabetes may be developing it for different reasons. Additionally, they may be suffering from other health complications that exacerbate the progression of the disease. Either way, the form of Type II diabetes found in “normal weight” patients may actually be slightly different, and perhaps either more inherently deadly and/or less resistant to existing treatment protocols (which were largely developed through work with “overweight” diabetic patients).
And further, it’s possible that Asian American patients may be predisposed for “normal weight” diabetes due to genetic and/or lifestyle differences. CNN reports:
Overall, about 85% of people with diabetes are heavy. Gaining too much weight is a major contributor to Type 2 diabetes, since excess fat cells can affect the way the body breaks down glucose and produces insulin, but some normal weight individuals can develop the disease as well.
The elderly and people of Asian descent are more likely to be at normal weight when diagnosed, for example.
In the end, we really don’t know enough about Type II diabetes and how it affects the Asian American population. All of these data really raise more questions than answers, and ultimately demand additional attention devoted to the study of Type II diabetes in “unconventional” (i.e. non-White and/or non-obese) populations.
To date, the vast majority of clinical studies have been performed on White populations, which significantly biases our understanding of many diseases. Further, most of the statistical health data collected by scientists and the federal government fail to adequately record racial data, despite ample evidence suggesting that race and socioeconomic status both affect patient outcome in several diseases. Thus, what meager statistics we do have regarding the health status of the Asian American community suffers from low sample sizes and inadequate stratification by factors including geography, socioeconomic status, health insurance coverage, and ethnicity.
Basically, we need more and better studies of how race affects diabetes and other diseases. Even the Carnethon study that I cite in this post doesn’t specifically address how different racial backgrounds impacts the progression of Type II diabetes. We need to know how the rising rates of Type II diabetes in the Asian American population can be treated (or not) by our existing knowledge regarding Type II diabetes in other populations.
And, most importantly, we need better federal funding of science, so that those studies can be conducted.
There’s a one-ton piece of American ingenuity and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.
It’s true. Not only did NASA scientists overcome several critical scientific and logistical roadblocks in landing a vehicle of scientific exploration on a planet more than 300 million miles away, but it did so in a climate of reduced scientific funding in this country. They did so in a climate of American scientific apathy, when the news cycle is more fascinated by Octomom and Kristin Stewart’s infidelity than they are in covering American scientific breakthroughs. They did so in a political atmosphere of willfull scientific ignorance, when the facts of evolution, climate change and stem cell research are questioned (if not openly denied) to score political points. And finally, NASA landed a one-ton robot on Mars despite an era of significant budget cuts by the federal government that have impacted all fields of science in this country.
It’s fitting, to me, that the rover that landed this morning was given the moniker “Curiousity”. Curiousity — the child-like wonder that still captures our imagination when faced with the unknown — is exactly what science is (and should be) about. Science shouldn’t be weaponized, or monetized, or belong only to the privileged wealthy few. Scientific findings should belong to the public so that it can benefit and further our basic understanding of the world we live in. Curiousity and intellect are traits that uniquely defines Homo sapiens; we are literally ”the thinking ape”. Science at its core is a pursuit that fulfills, and advances, the basic motivations of our species.
Private industry now makes up the vast majority of scientific funding sources, compared to the 1960's, during the heyday of the "Space Race".
Two years ago, NASA announced that — facing significant budget cuts — it had decided to indefinitely halt manned space missions. A tradition of space missions that began with a small bootprint on the surface of the moon and a giant leap forward for all mankind, came to a close within my lifetime.
Instead, manned space missions will now be outsourced to private companies, in a move that is likely to one day give birth to space tourism for rich people.
Private industries can make significant headway in certain areas of science, since internal funding for individual projects can remain much more constant from year-to-year. But, in industry, several factors also limit the kinds of projects that receive funding: projects are not submitted for external peer-review prior to funding (which typically serves to improve the initial conception and experimental design of a project), and projects are funded primarily according to their likely profitability rather than for their scientific merit. And most importantly, scientific findings made by private industry are typically copyrighted; unlike publicly-funded scientists, private industry is not required to share their findings in a manner that could be expanded upon and/or benefit the work of their scientific peers. Private industries are motivated to identify new drug compounds (if not the pathophysiology of the diseases they are designed to treat), computer chips and weapons. And don’t get me wrong: these are all worthy goals that have their place in science.
However, the landing of an SUV-sized rover on Mars merely to find out whether or not the planet was ever capable of sustaining life brings with it little promise of profit. One wonders if private enterprise would have ever funded such a mission.
Depicted above are President Obama's proposed budgetary changes to the major federal granting institutions in this country. Except for the CDC, President Obama promised to significantly increase funding to almost all agencies.
NIH grant success rates plummeted during the Bush years and show no signs of improving as Obama's first term comes to a close.
The budget cuts are also anticipated to put a virtual halt to the funding of new projects next year, and we’ve already seen an impact of budget cuts since I’ve been a young investigator. Funded grants have their budgets unexpectedly slashed from year-to-year, and earlier this year, a scientific conference that received a score that almost guaranteed funding (which is used to reimburse travel costs for invited speakers) suddenly found that the agency had its funding source suspended, resulting in a desperate last-minute scramble by the conference organizers to secure sponsorships from private industry just weeks before the conference’s scheduled start-date.
And, as I write this post, I received in my inbox an email from the Coalition for Life Sciences, a scientific political advocacy group whose mission is to organize scientists to reach out to our political representatives on topics of scientific funding and research. The CLS notes that:
Scientific funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is at an all-time low, and funding for FY13 is expected to remain flat.
Devastating, automatic cuts in federal government spending are set to go into effect in January 2013. This action called sequestration resulted from the failure of Congress to agree upon a deficit reduction plan in 2011. In the event of sequestration, NIH could face an additional 8% funding cut. This could mean a reduction by a quarter in the number of new and competing renewal grants funded by NIH in FY13. Click here for more information on sequestration.
The fact that funding of science by America has plummeted over the last decade is a significant indication that science — as a field — is floundering in this country. Lack of proper scientific funding will severely hamper not only the very act of scientific pursuit, but the quality of the science that will emerge for years to come. I’m already seeing the first impacts of the bleak funding outlook for scientists: faced with the low income of most scientists (most of us doctorates can look forward to making about as much money as a manager of your local fast-food joint for several years after graduating) and the growing difficulty of getting new grants funded (the bread-and-butter of young up-and-coming investigators), more and more gifted scientific minds of my generation are leaving public science for private industry jobs, or are leaving science altogether. The impact of this hemorrhagic exodus of young investigators away from science is virtually unpredictable, but is almost certain to impact America’s already poor scientific and educational standing worldwide.
So, today, NASA landed a Mars rover on Mars. And, yes, this is a testament to American ingenuity, and another leap forward for mankind’s scientific understanding of our neighbouring planets in the solar system.
But, as Curiousity continues to transmit new images from the surface of Mars, I urge us all to not just celebrate this individual achievement. This breakthrough didn’t happen in a vacuum; it is made all the more astounding given the political obstacles that NASA scientists faced in making the Curiousity mission a reality. As we move forward from today, I urge all of us — scientists and non-scientists alike — to draw a line in the political sand.
Curiousity cannot just be the name of an isolated unmanned scientific mission to Mars. Scientific curiousity should remain a defining characteristic of our species, one that remains strong due to constant political and economic support by our leaders. My parents watched the first manned space mission to the moon, only to have their children witness the ending of manned space missions. I hope that I didn’t just witness one of the most ambitious landings of an unmanned robot on Mars, only to have my children witness the further deterioration of scientific pursuits within their lifetime.