Thursday, May 31, 2007

Move Over Sasquatch...

Have you seen a large, difficult to describe hominid wandering the shores of Puget Sound recently?

Nope - It's not Saquatch, it's (drumroll) the MudMonster!

It turns out that Puget Sound is messed up. Think Chesapeake Bay with cruise ships and nuclear submarines. There are efforts afoot to fix that (WA House Bill 1374, Governor Gregoire's plan, WA Senate Bill 5372, etc.) but this will need time, money, federal involvement and public support. Part of the public relations efforts include a new program (kicked off today), called MudUp! is geared toward getting interested citizens involved.

I highly recommend visiting that site to learn about how you can get muddy and improve the ecology of Puget Sound.

But back to the Mud Monster. According to the website,
Like Sasquatch, he can be rather elusive at times, but he's friendly and doesn't shy away from crowds. You never know where he'll pop up - at farmers' markets, at festivals, and even on ferries.
In the Mud Monster photo album, there is a picture of our governor - the same one who led the charge against big tobacco as Washington's attorney general - standing uncomfortably next to what appears to be a giant turd. At least the turd has a big smile, starfish on its chest, a kelp sash and shore grass for hair.

I hope that MudUp! is successful, and I applaud their efforts to bring some fun to a task that will require lots of hard work from the grass- I mean eelgrass-roots level on up to federal policy work.

Creation Museum Commercial

In case you don't live in the Cincinnati television market, check out the catchy commercial for the newly opened Creation Museum.

"Prepare to believe..."

that we have good PR staff!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Hope in Science

One of my co-workers challenged me to think about the title of my blog. In a nutshell, his argument is that if it's really a science blog I am writing, how do I get away with referencing hope? My immediate response is that science's role in society contributes as much hope to fix the world as it does pain and suffering (following the Pandora's Box story). But that got me thinking about this word, hope... So I've been jotting down some phrases I've heard in the lab or have thought to myself in the past few days. Some of them are troubling... If I analyzed them here, I would probably bore all 10 of my readers into clicking away from my site. So I am just going to list them. Hopefully some of you will feel motivated to list some of your own in the comments section.
  • We hope to find that erythropoietin increases cell survival in two week old cardiac grafts.
  • I hope that endothelial cell density translates into vessel density.
  • I hope to graduate this fall.
  • We are all hoping that this Program Project Grant gets funded.
  • I hope this experiment works!
  • I sure hope this animal survives.
  • Hopefully, I am not here when the streetcar starts running.
  • You just crushed all of my hopes and dreams.
Is it appropriate to hope that an experiment works? Shouldn't the answer be satisfying even if it is unexpected? How are hope and expectation linked in the practice of science? Is the real problem that the word hope can be used in different contexts?

Carbon Offsets

Summer is here. Those people not finishing up dissertations will be taking vacations. More than last year, folks will hit the roads, rails and flight paths en route to fun. Also, more than last year, there will be increased carbon offset purchasing. The standard scheme involves planting mango trees in India or something to satisfy consumptive lifestyle-choices. Thanks to the movie stars, it's all the rage.

The last few months have seen an increase of more critical stories about this activity. (See an earlier post I made, too.) The metaphor of atonement is a good one. If we ask forgiveness, but don't change our ways, have we really been sincere? Planting trees is just a stop-gap. If you want to offset your carbon load, think about reducing it in the first place.

Okay, enough with the preaching... Have a nice remainder of your holiday!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Creating "Museums"

While I'm on the topic of museums, there's a new one opening Monday that deserves some coverage here. At the time of this post, the Creation Museum was to open in 16 hours, 32 minutes and 12 seconds. (Information conveniently provided on their website.)

Fortunately for me (and I am guessing, you too!), we can participate in this event from afar. You can see the highlights of this $27 million dollar project in a virtual walk-through. One netizen has already posted photographs of most of the exhibits. In the online tour, I am partial to the
"towering face of Grand Canyon along the front wall, while bones of dreadful dinosaurs hint of catastrophe"
"T. rex—the real king of the beasts. That’s the terror that Adam’s sin unleashed! You’ll run into this monster lurking near Adam and Eve. How’s this possible? Find out soon!"
It's not just about dinosaurs. You can also
"unravel the mystery of the origin of the so-called ‘races,’ and discover how the science of anthropology actually confirms the Bible’s history!"
I am guessing this has something to do with the Tower of Babel.

I am an advocate for bringing together people to talk about the elements of science and religion that are in conflict, so that we can better understand each other and better understand ourselves. There are plenty of scientists and believing people that honestly pursue dialogue. The Creation Museum and its supporting organization, Answers in Genesis, are not interested in this kind of conversation. Also from their walk-through:
"God’s Word is true, or evolution is true. No millions of years. There’s no room for compromise."
Except among the hundreds of thousands of scientists who are also religious.

Several articles have been written and syndicated about this story, and one from the Washington Post showed up in my Sunday Seattle Times. I appreciated the incongruence of two statements made by Ken Ham, the brains behind this operation.
"When you're talking about origins, you're not talking about science," Ham said as charter members snapped photographs in an early walk-through. "You're talking about belief."
But, to the national press reporter:
The overriding goal is to convince visitors that the Book of Genesis is scientifically defensible.
Wait a minute... I thought that "when you're talking about origins, you're not talking about science."

Another gem also comes from Ken Ham:
"People are just fascinated by dinosaurs, but they've sort of become synonymous with millions of years and evolution."
If you want to read more, over at the ScienceBlog Pharyngula, PZ Myers has assembled much more information than I could uncover in a week!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Phantom Menace

Seed Magazine recently posted a troubling report about how the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History delayed and "toned-down" an exhibit about global warming because there were fears that the White House and Congress would react negatively to it.

The associate director for public programs at the National Museum of Natural History, Robert Sullivan claims that all sorts of attempts were made to insert uncertainty into an exhibit presenting scientific conclusions about the effects of global warming on indigenous flora, fauna and human populations in the arctic. If you don't believe all of these are affected, the NYTimes printed a story today about this very issue!

In the Seed article, he says that:
"Nobody was specifically asking us to do it, the Congress was not asking, the White House was not asking.” But he added: “It was insidious. It’s never stated as a policy, but it’s always kind of there, this kind of shadow. The knowledge is always there that you have to be careful, and that’s recent, really in the last decade."
Is public funding for the public understanding of science a phantom menace?

Considering that the Smithsonian gets 70% of its income from Federal allocations, it is reasonable that we think a little bit more about how to effectively shelter presentations of science from political meddling.

Friday, May 25, 2007

LOL Ross

Over at the Denialism Blog, they're poking a little fun at Creationists by making Photoshopped images of prominent creationists employing the diction used for instant messaging and texting. Their inspiration was LOLPresident. In my opinion, it's a lot easier to make fun of W than creationists, so please forgive me this effort.Marcus Ross recently earned a PhD in geosciences from University of Rhode Island, and is a committed young earth creationist. The science blogosphere erupted over this story a few months ago. An article in the NYTimes about the incident will give you a refresher.

Ill translate my caption for you.
i'z a phd in rox = I have a PhD in geosciences
n only 6K yo!?! = And I know the earth is only 6000 years old.
By the way, Dr. Ross teaches earth science at Liberty University.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Sad Science of Disabled Vets

This King of the Nerds column was good when I read a draft two months ago; now it's great.

His first column last week got rave reviews, but Jonathan Golob's piece today about the increasing severity of war injuries right on the money. Note that Jonathan's boss is Dan Savage...

These days, I'm a closet patriot. I'm a real live nephew of my Uncle Sam's (born on the 4th of July) so have always appreciated the fireworks and red-white-and-bluedom of stereotypical patriotism. I hung a flag after 9/11, but then had to take it down when we invaded Iraq. As my politics moves further to the left, I've realized that the patriot can manifest in many forms. The guy on the overpass holding the cardboard sign that says, "Impeach Bush," is just as concerned about our country as the moms with their yellow ribbons in front of Fort Lewis. If you want an idea how to be patriot scientist, be sure to read Golob's article.

In highlighting the reasons disabled vets are more prevalent now than ever, Jonathan puts the capital letters in Citizen-Scientist.

Carbon Footprint: Recycle Aluminum

I have heard several times that recycling one aluminum soda can conserves as much energy as it takes to power a television for one hour. Of this, I am skeptical. The requirement I impose on myself whenever I assume the mantle of skeptic is that I am willing to look for an answer - not just question a statement! Here is what I have found:

It turns out that recycling containers uses less energy than it takes to make them from brand new, raw material. For metals, this is linked to the immense energy consumption involved in mining ore and refining it for materials. For plastics, it is connected to the petroleum refinement and subsequent polymerization processes - remember that plastics come from oil!

There is a nice list of facts at the Recycling Revolution site about aluminum recycling. There I learned all sorts of tidbits about can consumption. Evidently, one can there uses the equivalent of 3 hours of television. Maybe TV's are more energy efficient these days... I doubt it is harder to pull aluminum out of bauxite ore. Evidently it takes A LOT of energy (and CO2 emission) to make aluminum. According to another source at Blogcritics magazine,
recycled aluminum uses only 5 percent of the energy needed to process "fresh" aluminum and is virtually waste-free.
So there you have it, there is some credibility linking can recycling to television hours. If you want to really reduce your carbon footprint, recycle your cans and don't watch the television...

Progress in Science

The end is here!

The senior graduate student in our laboratory defended her dissertation this morning. Marilyn presented her thesis about her work to control differentiation and proliferation of endothelial cells and the use of such cells in tissue engineered constructs. It is a tradition in our lab (thanks to Hans Reinecke- shown at right) to make a doktorhut that represents the research and personal interests of the graduate. You can see the work in progress below. There is a better shot of the elaborate mortarboard (with descriptions) at my flickr site.
It's great that scientists can come together and contribute to collaborative art. It also helps that there are some art majors in our lab!

Awarding the PhD is a phenomenon that varies with the individual, department and university. Generally, the candidate slaves on the research, writes a 100+ page dissertation and finally makes a streamlined oral presentation; afterwards there's a luncheon or a party. Maybe the awarding department will have a group function, and PhD students are permitted to 'walk' at commencement, but my impression is that the main celebration is the day of the defense. In this case, Marilyn finished at about the same time as the academic year concluded. Most students defend whenever they finish, which could be at any point of the year!

Congratulations Marilyn!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Science + Beer = ?

Seattle's own Science Cafe, Science on Tap just got a nice write-up in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer today. Science Cafes were started in the late 90's by Duncan Dallas in Leeds England. In the UK, they're called Cafe Scientifique. I organized a symposium at last year's American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting and invited Mr. Dallas to speak. He is a really laid back guy that has a passion for connecting scientists and the public. He also came up with the Science Cafe mission:

Cafe Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.

Cafe Scientifique is a forum for debating science issues, not a shop window for science. We are committed to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable.

Science on Tap does the same thing the last Monday of every month and in so doing. takes over the Pub at Ravenna's Third Place Books.

This month, their event is tonight because of Memorial day. The speaker and topic is:

Kristina Adams
UW Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology
"The Human Chimera: how fetal cells trafficking across the placenta can persist in the mother long-term and contribute to health and disease"
May 21st 2007, 7pm

See you there!

Saturday, May 19, 2007


The folks at the World's Fair blog are conducting a small survey of coffee mug culture. Here's to making it a slightly larger study! They asked:

1. Can you show us your coffee cup?
2. Can you comment on it? Do you think it reflects on your personality?
3. Do you have any interesting anecdotes resulting from coffee cup commentary?
4. Can you try to get others to comment on it?

My answers:

1. Yes

2. The mug was a gift from Ian Maki, the director of the Community Health Advancement Project (CHAP) and Student Providers Aspiring to Rural and underserved eXperiences (SPARX). The logo represents a now defunct health care outreach program for homeless youth in Seattle. I like the mug because it represents my interest and commitment to health care issues for homeless people. The context of the mug (only slightly staged, but it seems like others did some staging as well...) represents several of my interests. You have already noted that I have fruit juice in stead of coffee in my mug. That's along the lines of sacrilege in Seattle, but I'm okay with that.

3. Every so often I get to tell stories about homelessness and recruit someone to help out on a volunteer project.

4. Will you, kind reader, comment on my blog?

Friday, May 18, 2007


The winner of this first contest at Hope for Pandora gets a FOSEP pen. The fancy clicky type.

While I was finishing data collection for one of my experiments, I came up with a clever title for a blog post or opinion article. Since I am currently too tired to think, I have decided to solicit opinion from you all about what article should go with my overly clever title. You're right - I admit this is just a way to PUNt my creative blogging duties. The title is:

"Conscience vs. Con Science"

Your task is to suggest for me a topic and a catchy lead sentence. I will do the rest of the work of writing a post. I might even have to argue for something I don't believe in...

The entry deadline is May 25. Submit your entry as a comment below.

I will mail the pen at my expense anywhere in the world.

Yes, I was sad when i found out that someone else already thought of this pun. He even titled his blog Conscience vs. Con Science.

Science News is Slipping

I was pleased to encounter a science news story today about a research group that I know. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an AP story about the University of Pittsburgh's Human Movement and Balance Laboratory. It happens that the lab's director, Mark Redfern, was a professor when I attended Pitt, and taught a couple of my classes. I was even a research subject for some of their experiments.

In all, this story was a good presentation of scientific research. It included a personality profile, the implication that human subject volunteers are needed for experiments, a reference to a famous person (Kurt Vonnegut) affected by the condition (falls) being studied, some stats about the importance of falls, and an interesting question for which there is no certain answer. This last part is where the science comes in handy!

But since I know the professor featured, I sent off an email to him to find out how it was that his research made it into my local newspaper. If he responds, I will post the answers here. Any of you out there want to venture a guess about how a story from the Three Rivers made it to the Emerald City? Both funny and cynical comments will be appreciated.

---Update 5/18/07; 1900 hrs PDT---

Dr. Redfern just emailed me this description:

Hi Tom,
This is how this came about:
The School of Engineering had a two day educational program a couple of years ago for some reporters. At that time, a number of different investigators talked to them about the kinds of work we were doing. Our lab was one of those presentations. About two months ago (now two years after the presentations), I was contacted by one of the reporters, who asked what progress we had made. He decided to come out to Pitt to do an interview and write a story on the work. Nice guy and fairly sharp.

I will still accept comments about how this got from Pittsburgh to Seattle! Usually you only read stories from the local university...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

New Science Column

Hey You! Check out King of the Nerds in 'Seattle's Only Newspaper' The Stranger. In this week's online edition, my colleague Jonathan Golob, debuted his efforts to alert "the most educated city in the country" of the way scientists go about viewing the way the world turns. (He will also point out that this world goes around a sun, not vice versa.) You can expect that:
Every week, (he will) give a wonk's view of the world around us and how we know what we know.
I just love the word, wonk! I've had a sneak peak of several of his future columns, and think that you will enjoy them. And who knows... maybe some of his columns will provoke you to action!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bioengineering ELSI

This report is a summary of one I presented to the committee tasked with identifying the future of bioengineering and by extension the UW BioE department. It has been revised for consideration by the Bioengineering Department's chair search committee. My opinions are based in large part on my experiences leading a group on campus called the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy.

I think it is important for the bioengineering department – and by extension the chair – to seek innovative ways to bridge science and engineering with medicine, ethics and social impact.
From my perspective, the extent that this is even considered as an important task by the bioengineering department is small. In the current environment of ultra-competitive funding (Science, Vol 316, 20 April 2007, p. 356-361), increased occurrences of scientific misconduct (Nature, Vol 435, 9 June 2005, p.737-8), and ever-prevalent social concerns about science, I believe it important for the chair to have ideas about how to prepare students for the complexities of biomedical research and enable faculty to engage each other in meaningful conversations.

Several research strengths at the UW exist in the midst of important public discussions about science and society. Three of these are global health, stem cell research, and nanotechnology. Not only are there prominent researchers in each of these fields within or affiliated with the bioengineering department, but there are centers here focused on each of these topics. As the bridge between basic biomedical research and practical implementation, bioengineers are uniquely positioned to think critically about the needs and expenses of the technology they are building. I believe that the best bioengineers will be able to integrate needs and opinions from society into the healthcare setting. They should be, at the minimum, competent communicators about issues in science, engineering and society.

I believe strongly that a deliberate effort to incorporate issues of social responsibility and public policy into science and technology would provide the foundations to develop individuals that will lead their fields in academia, the corporate sector and the public sphere. How would this be accomplished? I have some ideas, but there are several more out there. Candidates for chair should provide innovative insights into how meaningful conversations about ethical, legal and social implications of research could be facilitated in the UW Bioengineering department. It will not be easy to incorporate concepts often relegated to liberal arts departments into a technical education, but creativity and dedication could result in significant gain. Bioengineers familiar with the global, social and political context of their work will be better prepared to tackle the current challenges in health care and lead us through the next century.


This entry is modified from text I prepared for submission to the search committee for the new bioengineering department chair. For the record, I also submitted a revised form of a previously prepared recommendation concerning the role of ethical, legal and social impacts on engineering education. I am interested in hearing what anybody out there thinks of this perspective.

My comments today focus on the need for the new chair of bioengineering to lead efforts in interdisciplinary collaboration, interdepartmental partnerships and translational clinical research.

The new chair must have a vision for more and better collaborations with clinicians. Such a perspective (and the skill to form and implement a plan) will ensure that translational research is not merely entrepreneurial, or “bench to bedside,” but is “bedside to bench to bedside.” Too often, it seems that clinicians, scientists and engineers are not on the same page. This is a problem in the increasingly competitive environment for funding, where there will be good science that does not make the cut. In the context of bioengineering, the proposals that will succeed will contain good science that is problem driven. It is easy to label this as lofty talk, but I believe it is possible to fulfill these ideals if the department chair possesses some particular skills and is willing to facilitate certain kinds of interactions. Some of my ideas are listed here:

  1. The chair should hold regular meetings with leaders from other departments and centers, and should make an effort to foster relationships all over campus. A familiarity with other centers’ research programs is important.
  2. The chair should freely offer statements to departmental faculty that start with the phrase, “Have you spoken with...?” The chair should be in the best position to synthesize new collaborations because she or he has relationships with other campus administrators.
  3. The chair could hold periodic department-wide meetings (with food) to offer a “State of the Department” address or to host feedback sessions.
  4. The chair could sponsor quarterly seminars that appeal (either in one talk or in rotating talks) to clinicians, applied and basic scientists. It might be necessary to hold such seminars at a location that enables clinicians to attend. Any event that mixes clinicians and faculty would improve our current state.
  5. The department should reiterate support for extending teaching and exam privileges to clinicians. Such clinicians could teach classes, serve on committees or co-advise students. More deliberate infusions of clinical experience would benefit students and faculty alike.

The bioengineering department at the UW is excellent. It is ranked highly in reputation and in revenue. This status is well-earned. I am surprised that there is not more interaction with the clinicians just down the street, particularly at the student level. Third-world diagnostics design might be more pertinent if trainees had some experience in the laboratory medicine department. Bone, heart or esophageal tissue engineers could learn a lot by interacting with orthopedic, heart or gut surgeons. I believe that a chair who has experience working in translational medicine and can communicate with engineers, basic scientists and clinicians will enable the UW to develop into the best bioengineering department in the nation.

Tenure and Behavior

There's a lively group of posts over at ScienceBlogs regarding astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez's denial of tenure at Iowa State. He and others claim it is because he supports intelligent design (ID) . His critics claim that Gonzalez's work was beginning to market ISU as an "intelligent design school."

This reminds me of another publicized tenure dispute in February. So far, James Sherley's efforts to earn tenure at MIT have been unsuccessful. He endured a 12 day fast
over claims of racism in the tenure process before ending it in February. From an outsider's perspective, these claims do not seem without merit, but this case may not simply be a matter of racism. (Don't misunderstand me, racism is NEVER simple.)

Last June, Dr. Sherely wrote an opinion piece for the Boston Globe offering a perspective that embryonic stem cell research is untenable, immoral and a waste of money. Sherley's research focuses on the proliferative capacity of certain kinds of adult stem cells. I saw him give an interview talk at the University of Washington last year, was skeptical of some of his claims, but also identified some important findings from his work. By being vocal about the stem cell issue, he has assumed a position of scientist and public commentator on science - this is a role I would like to pursue! (Clearly, I have a different perspective on this issue than he.) As I understand it, every other faculty member in his department supports embryonic stem cell research, and Sherley has had personal clashes with them (including with the department chair's wife) about his views.

It is admirable that he is willing to take a minority viewpoint on a controversial issue. Especially since this viewpoint is based on a personal religious faith that is sometimes viewed as a weakness in science. I wonder if Sherley's minority views were actually more important in this decision than his minority race. That the tenure process is closed-door suggests that we will never know.

A talk I attended yesterday afternoon might shed some light on this issue. Brian Martinson, the first author of a highly cited Nature article titled, "Scientists Behaving Badly," spoke about how the supply and demand for science workers is heavily skewed toward the supply side. There is material in that talk sufficient for several more posts, but one of his central theses is that science has reached a level of detrimental competitiveness. this does not just play out at the tenure-granting level, but in the funding process, publications and even in areas of research integrity. I wonder if we are only at the front end of controversial and highly publicized cases of claims of injustice. If so, maybe we all had better look at whether the practice of science is prepared for a cultural sea change.

---Update 5/18/07; 2100 hrs PDT---

I've noticed a good amount of traffic to this post. If you are interested in reading some of the original correspondence by and to Dr. Sherley, visit this file directory. Of particular note are his open letters for support and the tenure committee's statement of facts about Sherley's tenure seeking process. Other letters detail such information as lab space square footage and details from Sherley's hunger strike. Thanks to the commenter (below) for leading me to this reference.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Carbon Footprint: Take the Stairs

This social graffiti is a friendly reminder to folks in the teaching wing of the UW''s Health Sciences Building that taking the stairs is not only good for you, but good for the environment. The connection to the fish is that the power used for the electric elevator comes from hydroelectric plants, and that the demand for power is the main obstacle for salmon migration.

Taking the stairs also reduces electricity use in general. By how much, I am not sure. The best information I could find (from the National Park Service) is that using an elevator to travel 1 floor requires 350 watt-hours of energy. So if you take an elevator 4 times a day (twice up and twice down) 4 flights a day, that amounts to 5.6 kWh/day. Over a year, you would by yourself use 1.5 MWh or (using a standard conversion factor of 0.43 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kWh) 0.71 tons of carbon. And don't think you get out of this by sharing the elevator - the more folks in the 'vador, the more electricity is needed to run the lift.

I have to admit that I take the elevator every so often. (I guess it's funny that I bike to work and then am too lazy to walk up 4 flights...) Feel free to call me out the next time you see me push the button!

Monday, May 14, 2007

More True Faith

I don't think Richard Dawkins pays attention to the American Republican primary race, but he recently made some comments about faith and science relevant to a recent post of mine. Fortunately, newspaperman William Rees-Mogg elegantly responded to this.

Thanks to the reader who alerted me of this conversation.

Science by Fiat

Check out this good editorial about strong-arming science in the Seattle P-I.

Evidently, scientists in the Department of the Interior are being bullied. And then their reports are re-written anyway!

Who would have guessed? I guess if it worked with the spies, why not try it on the scientists!

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Now's as good a time as any for an entry about competitiveness.

For those of you that are not science policy wonks, competitiveness is a term that is often applied to science funding. For future reference, another code word for science funding is innovation. Anyway, a spate of supra-majority supported legislation has emerged from the Democratic controlled congress that would increase allocations to just about every federal agency that funds science. (Note that the National Institutes of Health is funded by its own mechanisms and is not touched by these bills.) The Bush Administration is committed to a veto because of "excessive and inappropriate" spending levels and that the bills create "unnecessary bureaucracy."

What's the scoop on these veto-proof measures?

S.761 "America COMPETES" passed 88-8 and would:
  • Double National Science Foundation funding in 5 years
  • Boost funding at the Dept. of Energy and Nat'l Institute of Standards and Technology
  • Increase funding for science education programs from K-graduate school.
H.R. 362 would boost training programs for science and math teachers through programs at the NSF. and passed 397-20

H.R. 363 would increase financial support for young investigators (that's me!) and passed 389-22.

The House also has some upcoming votes on science funding for NSF, NIST, DOE, DOD, XYZ and LMNOP.

In contrast, the executive branch would have NSF's and others' funding double in 10 years as part of the 2006 State of the Union-touted American Competitiveness Initiative. It turns out that the Congress has followed the 2005 National Academies' recommendation much more closely than the Administration.

But really, what do you expect that scientists will ask for when asked other than more money?

A good chunk of my information for this entry came from the subscription-only Science Magazine.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Genetic Nondiscrimination

Last year, UW's Forum on Science Ethics and Policy sponsored a talk by Tim Leshan, Branch Chief & Senior Policy Analyst of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He titled his talk, The Fear of Genetic Discrimination and the Need for a Public Policy Solution. In addition to providing some insight to young scientists about how to interact with government on policy issues, he presented an account of his decade long effort to insure that Americans need not fear denial of employment or health insurance on the basis of their genes.

All of that work has paid off. House Resolution 493, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) passed 420-3. GINA's highlights (from the Thomas Registry) include:
  • a prohibition against discrimination by group health plans, health insurance, and Medicare issuers on the basis of genetic information,
  • extending medical privacy and confidentiality rules to the disclosure of genetic information,
  • making it illegal for an employer, employment agency, labor organization, or training program to discriminate against an individual or deprive such individual of employment opportunities because of genetic information, and
  • penalties for doing any of these things.
Opponents of this measure claim the legislation is unnecessary because in real life, sufferers of genetic discrimination are rare. I suppose this is true, but complete genetic screens are not exactly commonplace yet, and there are plenty of cases of individuals paying for genetic tests out of pocket to avoid discovery by insurance companies. Depending on the particulars of its enforcement, this could be a good example of proactive governance.

If it makes it to the Senate's legislative calender, GINA should easily pass. Bush even has said he will sign it into law. If you have opinions on this matter, call or email your senator and refer to S.358.

Friday, May 11, 2007

True Science and True Religion

As you may know, several candidates for president were recently asked if they believed in evolution. In elaborating on his response after the debate, one candidate offered the following:

He told his interviewers that he did not believe there was a “conflict between true science and true religion.”

“True science and true religion are on exactly the same page,” he said. “they may come from different angles, but they reach the same conclusion. I’ve never found a conflict between the science of evolution and the belief that God created the universe. He uses scientific tools to do His work.”

Interesting. Putting aside my curiosity of what he actually means by 'true' science and 'true' religion are, I wonder if we will ever hear language like this come from a Democratic candidate... I kind-of wish we would sometime. It might bring the conversation about faith, science and politics toward a discussion, rather than a shouting match.

You get extra points for correctly guessing which candidate this was.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


The Ashley Treatment is back in the news. A judge recently found that Seattle's Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center should have sought a court order before approving the hysterectomy that Ashley received as part of her palliative treatments. (The hysterectomy was only one part of the Ashley Treatment that made news in January. For the complete story, visit this article.) The Seattle P-I published today a good editorial about this. What caught me is the sensible statement:
We don't have reason to believe the hospital made the wrong decision in approving the treatments for Ashley. Every indication is that her parents wanted what would be best for their child and what would enable them to continue providing loving care.
One unique element of this story is that the family keeps a blog about their decision. It isn't like they want personal publicity - they have stayed anonymous through the whole process. I personally think this is a good way to educate the public in a way that encourages conversation. Sure the major media outlets picked it up as a sensational story, but it seemed to me like there was more discussion about this because Joe Public could go look up all of the information himself - outside the context of 30 second stories and 500 word articles.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Carbon Footprint: Live in the Northwest

It's popular around these parts to try and reduce your carbon footprint. I've already commented on carbon trading and using public transit as ways to do this. One approach probably slipped your mind: Move to Seattle! According to the born and bred Seattleites, I am not qualified to offer such an invitation. I transplanted 6 years ago. If you want to live somewhere that does not depend on burning stuff to keep your food frozen, Seattle is a good option for you. The Emerald City gets only 6% of all power by direct combustion.

Do you know where your power comes from?

Scott Thomsen of Seattle City Light helped me track down the statistics of how Seattle's power is generated. Seattle's fuel mix as of 2005 is as follows:
Hydro 86.45%
Natural Gas 5.28%
Nuclear 4.23%
Wind 3.06%
Coal 0.89%
Biomass 0.07%
Petroleum 0.02%

Since 2005, total consumption has been augmented with a 1% input from solar power. You can even check to see which rivers power your water heaters and cell phone chargers. So the Emerald City is really green!

Wait a minute, that depends on who's definition of green you use. Washington voters may remember the November 2006 initiative to increase the required green power sources to 15%. My assessment of the numbers above puts Seattle (and the rest of the state) already ahead of that. It turns out that Washington's standard for green is stricter than almost any other state. If that sounds fishy to you, you're right on! According to state statute, green hydropower only counts if it allows for salmon to navigate past the dam.

From HB2349 (2006):
Qualified hydropower is defined as the additional energy produced by either (a) modernizations or upgrades that have been made after June 1, 1998, on existing hydropower facilities that do not obstruct the passage of anadromous fish; or (b) new hydropower facilities that operate with a head of twenty meters or less that do not obstruct the passage of anadromous fish.
If you'd like to pay someone to help reduce your carbon footprint, I bet the Green Up program (or your local utility's equivalent) is a better investment than one of those carbon trading schemes. Utilities are actively pursuing new strategies for reducing carbon output. Here is part of Seattle's plan. Reducing your personal carbon output depends on behavior change, but there also is significant room for improving the power source. Tell your utility that you want your power to be cleaner.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Case for Faculty Unions

Janet Stemwedel (nom de blog Dr. Free-Ride, of Adventures in Ethics and Science) has just posted an excellent entry about unionized faculty in the Cal State University system. My 4 readers may recall my own perspectives about academic unions - most notably my objection to the graduate student variety. This long post presents history, motivations and reflections about faculty unionization, and how that relates to the labor of love called higher education.

Reporting Research Funding

The latest addition to the Northwest's journalism community is an online paper that focuses on "news of the great nearby." The great part refers I suppose to the Northwest... In principle, I like the idea of focusing news presentations on issues that make a difference in our region. The Crosscut staff is led by David Brewster and is composed of some Seattle reporting legacy characters, most notably Knute "Skip" Berger who now goes as Mossback.

In the first original Crosscut material I've seen that has to do with the science conducted in the Northwest, Brewster reports an uninspired list of statistics that is essentially a data table put into sentences. The bottom line is that universities in the Northwest are doing pretty well in attracting federal funds for science research - except for Idaho.

For example, it might be worth pointing out that all of the states ahead of Washington have two to five times the number of 'R01' (large research) universities as in WA. Other consequences of funding could be explored, such as keeping the NW a vibrant research community for young scientists, entrepreneurs and leaders in scientific research. How do these numbers compare in per capita?

What of the political implications of rankings like these? I would appreciate reporting what these rankings mean for state support for public higher ed. The UW has a tough time every biennium getting its budget approved by the legislature. Is this due to the surprisingly low percentage of state legislatures who have college degrees? What is state funding like in other NW states? Is Alaska's successful growth in receiving federal funds related to increases there in state allocation to research? Could this relate to Washington's plans to spend tobacco settlement money on the Life Sciences Initiative?

It is important for the public to know what great institutions of learning we have in our backyards, so I appreciate the coverage. It just seems like a little more work would have made a lot more informative article.