January 2007 Archives

Over Fishing Tuna

Japan seems to have a way with the fishes, as both scientists and fisherman have dredged up some very rare sea creatures recently. In December a research team "succeeded in filming a giant squid live -- possibly for the first time", according to a CNN report. The researchers suggested that the capture of this 24 foot squid, filmed live for audiences worldwide, might mean that other members of the genus Architeuthis were more plentiful than previously thought. Unfortunately though, as they snared their specimen for study, it "put up quite a fight" then "died while being caught".

Then last week Japanese fisherman spotted a rare frilled shark Chlamydoselachus anguineus, which they also caught and filmed live-ish. They transferred the so called living fossil to a marine park, but the shark, which observers suggested was sick, "died hours after it was caught". The benefit of shark's untimely death was that film makers could then get shots of the now formerly living fossil lying on floor, with a man lying next to it for proportion so that TV audiences could get a sense of its size -- about the same size as the man.

Given these fateful events, when news reports last week described Japan's position as the host of an international meeting of the world's five Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMO) as "highly symbolic", we wondered what they meant. Government representatives were convening in Kobe to work on measures to protect endangered tuna fisheries and stocks. Tuna stocks had suffered precipitous declines in the past couple of decades because tuna is the world's most popular and regularly over-harvested fish. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated recently:

"nearly 70% of the world's fisheries are either overexploited or nearly fully exploited, due primarily to a growing world demand for fish and a harvesting capacity that is increasing more rapidly than is the catch of fish."

In 2004 Atlantic bluefin tuna capable of spawning had decreased by 19% of 1975 levels. FF Spawning stock of Southern bluefin tuna in the Indian Ocean is down about 90%, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).

Despite the build-up about the first ever meeting between the five regional management groups, at the end of the week long meeting, opinions about the outcome differed depending on whether you asked a conservationist or a meeting organizer. Alistair Graham of the WWF concluded, "we do see this meeting as a failure." According to the WWF 200 officials traveled to the meeting but in the end took "no concrete actions" to stem the depletion of tuna. The chairman of the meeting however, Masanori Miyahara, of Japan's fisheries agency said "maybe the steps we made this week seem small, but this is a big step, a historical step, I think."

Even taking into the consideration the predictability of these different spins, the effectiveness of the RFMOs to manage stocks is routinely questioned. In 2006 the UN Fish Stock Agreement noted that "most RFMOs are not performing impressively in their core duty, which is to achieve the long-term sustainability of fish stocks". Inevitably, some media will mark the Kobe meeting as "momentous", but the "small steps" of the Kobe meeting were hardly unprecedented. The meeting was one in many where hundreds of government representatives discuss tuna conservation strategies, generally with same results. The results are always criticized by conservationists and hailed by whichever countries believe they came out ahead.

There was a two week tuna meeting in Manila last August to discuss fish status in the western and central Pacific Oceans.The Commission for Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) met in Miyazaki in October 2006. There will be a meeting next month in La Jolla, California organized by the the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) to "consider" tuna management options. This is not to be confused with (ICCAT), the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meeting, which was held in Dubrovnik, Croatia last November, 2006 to decide tuna quotas. There's always another meeting. Tuna stocks continue to decline.

Scientists anticipated the Croatia meeting with a lot of optimism. The ICCAT Standing Committee on Research and Statistics, (SCRS) had just reported that the fishing mortality rate was "more than three times the level which would permit the tuna population to stabilize at the level of maximum sustainable yield." The U.S. and some conservationists thought that the definitive science report would sway participants to cut quotas. But instead of responding with immediate quota reductions and stricter enforcement of regulations, meeting attendees opted for a less restrictive 15 year reduction plan backed by the European Union and favored by Algeria, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, China, Japan, and Korea. Officials at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had proposed a stricter reduction and representing the U.S., (standing on some rare high ground) joined conservation groups by reacting with various degrees of disappointment and outrage to the final votes. The WWF called the results of the meeting the "death knell" for bluefin tuna.

It's not that nations don't universally agree that overfishing is a problem that threatens tuna - especially the bluefin. They do. But while scientists generally recommend that fishing quotas be drastically cut to prevent stock collapses, government representatives usually respond to the immediate economic pressures and opt for long term goals rather than drastic reductions. The Dubrovnik meeting succeeded in setting new quotas, from 32,000 metric tons (MT) to a gradual reduction to 25,500 MT in 2010. It also extended the period of designated "off season" for catching bluefin and increased the allowable fish size limit from 10kg to 30kg. The NOAA had argued that the quota should have been reduced to 15,000, and that the off-season rules be made more restrictive. Small fleets complained that raising the minimum fish size hindered their ability to catch small fish.

More substantiative agreements are hampered by differences between the conservation goals of large versus smaller countries, differences in opinion about which fish should be protected and how to protect them, as well as discordance about how to effectively prevent illegal harvesting, both by rogue fisherman as well as nations who flout the laws.

Even though quotas in the last several years were set to 32,000 MT, scientists estimate that the actual catch was closer to 50,000MT. Last year Japan admitted to catching more than it's allowable quotas of bluefin tun, because of a "logistical" error. They then agreed to cuts of 50% of their previous quotas, from 6,000MT to 3,000MT. The Drosvnik meeting established a timeline for the harvest reductions, but didn't set individual country goals. Today Japan announced that they were cutting their quota of bluefin tuna by 23% from 2007-2010.

What the media meant by labeling Kobe a "highly symbolic" location was that Japan consumes over 12% of the world's tuna and the majority of bluefin and somewhere between 25% and over 50% of some some other large tuna species. but one can't help but recognize that international controversy over fishing, is common for Japan where fish is a both a diet staple and a livelihood. Japan also conducts highly controversial "scientific whaling", which circumvents worldwide whaling moratoriums.Japan increases the number of whales it catches each year under the scientific fishing policy. In 1987 they took at total of 273 whales. In 2005 they increased the study sample to 5 sperm whales, 100 Sei whales, 50 Bryde's whales, 222 Northern Minke whales, 856 Southern Minke Whales and 10 Minke whales. In 2007 Japan will add the Humpback whale to it's list. The whales put up a good fight but unfortunately, "they all die while being caught".

While Japan does plunder the fish population, that said, other countries are as negligent in protecting the oceans and as fierce in protecting their immediate economic interests. Oceans carry the quandary of rivalous public goods. A meeting on endangered whales starts next week in Tokyo. 29 Nations plan to boycott the meeting because of Japan's defiance of the whaling moratorium.

$25,000 Prize For Whaling Vessel Coordinates

A couple of days ago the Sea Shepherd conservation group announced a $25,000 prize for coordinates of the Japanese Whaling Fleet operating in the Ross Sea. The information will help the conservation group save time as well as fuel. Apparently the Japanese whaling fleet invested in satellite technology to help them evade activists. This puts the pursuers at a disadvantage, although they said they could try to "hide behind an iceberg" (also a dwindling option) to avoid satellite detection.

Science Research Funding Increase?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Congress put forth a spending bill for 2007 that increases spending for physical-sciences and biomedical research. (Democratic Leaders in Congress Propose Increases for Scientific Research and Pell Grants in 2007 Budget, January 30, 2007). The Chronicle listed the proposed increases:

"The bill, which totals $463.5-billion, would be especially generous to scientific research. The research budget of the National Science Foundation would rise by nearly 8 percent, to $4.7-billion. Spending for the Energy Department's Office of Science would increase by about 6 percent, to $3.8-billion. Spending for the National Institutes of Health, the largest source of funds for university research, would rise by 2.1 percent, or $620-million, to $28.9-billion."

The bill also increases the maximum Pell grant award by 6% per year. The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the bill on Wednesday. The bill also specifically bars the addition of any earmark funding.

Agency Guidance Decisions

The New York Times reported today that Bush updated an executive order that will alter public agencies' ability influence policy. The directive will impact government agencies when they issue policy guidance documents aimed at regulating industries, and as a result public health and the environment as well as civil rights and privacy measures will be effected.

Agencies are tasked with interpreting laws passed by Congress and making policy recommendations that are often non-binding, but can influence -- or as Bush claims, "coerce"-- policy regulation. The executive order, which the White House listed last week in the Federal Register, will give Bush more say over what the agencies publish by putting a political appointee in charge of a regulatory office attached to each agency.

Businesses welcome the executive order, which tries to prevent any "major" recommendations from being issued without significant vetting and oversight. Any regulation that would economically impact a sector by more than $100 million dollars is considered major. Agencies will also need to assess whether their recommendations can be accomplished through market mechanisms, which the White House deems to be the preferable. Bush further undermines potential agency clout by demanding they soften their language in guidance documents and not use "mandatory language". If the proposed regulation is considered potentially onerous to any business interest, the agencies will need to subject their recommendations to public comment, then accommodate the suggestions they receive.

These new rules keep the Bush agenda intact, even when a newly elected Congress might pursue a different ideological approach, for instance when balancing environmental imperatives with business priorities. Impeding the agencies clout by requiring an even greater prioritization of economic interests seems to compromise the mission of public agencies that are charged with assessing science data, health and welfare of citizens. At any rate the move underlines the administration's predilection for business -- sometimes at the expense of public welfare.

NIH Ethics

Those Who Hold the Gold Make the Rules¹

In 2002-2003 The Los Angeles Times reported in a series of articles that senior NIH scientists were also industry consultants, paid in fees, stock, and options for their moonlighting. According to the series, the compensation was often permissible under lax agency regulations, however more often the scientists didn't disclose the income as required by the NIH. Congress followed the paper's reports with their own investigations. Then, an internal NIH review released in 2005 found that in 44 of 81 cases, NIH researchers who worked in industry did not follow the agencies' internal ethics rules.

The investigations triggered a debate over what industry activities should be allowed by public agency scientists, a debate that continues to roil today. Some of the NIH turmoil over ethics evolved naturally as a result of a changing research environment and changes in the nature of relationships between public and private research. The NIH tried to accommodate these change and ease concerns about the agency's ability to hire the most desirable candidates in 1995 under NIH head Harold Varmus. The organization loosened the rules, allowing employees to accept industry stock, options and consulting fees, but limiting the income to $25,000 and outside work to less than 500 hours per year. A mere seven years later the investigations revealed that certain scientists had pried open this chink of opportunity and defined their own, much more lucrative ethics boundaries, thus compromising an agency dedicated to deciding science objectives in the public interest.

In 2005, in the wake of the unfavorable media coverage and congressional investigations, the NIH proposed new rules to limit NIH scientists from any consulting engagements or stock ownership². However when the NIH announced the rules, some NIH scientists mounted a strong defense, hiring lawyers and lobbyists to fight the proposal and forming an inter-agency committee called the Assembly of Scientists to promote their own vision of ethical research. In what looked like a compromise to the lobbying efforts both inside and outside the agency, the NIH backed away from the most "draconian" limitations, but still barred certain consulting engagements and stock ownership.

The rules did not quell the concern over conflicts of interest. Today, some people say that the NIH rules are flagrantly ignored and that the agency fails to impose penalties on those who flout the limits. Congress held a panel discussion on the issue in September 2006, their 6th such meeting since the scientists activities were uncovered. Representative Joe Barton, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee noted that to date, none of "over 100 individuals identified by the NIH" for violating NIH policies had been terminated.

By the end of last year however, a couple of researchers had at least been reprimanded. One of those researchers was Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health and an Alzheimer's disease researcher, who was identified in the initial investigation. Sunderland had transferred spinal tissues stored at the NIH to Pfizer under a private contract he made with the company. Investigators never determined whether his consulting fees included payments for the "thousands" of NIH samples he gave to the company. But last month, he pled guilty to misdemeanor charges in federal court for failing to disclose payments of $285,000 that he had received for his consulting with Pfizer, although originally investigators alleged that he had accepted over $600,000 in payments. Sunderland was sentenced on December 22nd 2006 to two years of probation, 400 hours of community service and a restitution payment of $300,000. He could have been sentenced to a year in jail. He was never charged for transferring tissue samples. Some think that Mr. Sunderland was let off easily. Sunderland worked at the NIH throughout the investigation. He continued to benefit from agency perks and last year was offered a $16,000 retention bonus. However in his courtroom statement at the sentencing he said that he was "humbled".

Another publicized case was that of a pediatric oncology doctor, Dr. Thomas J. Walsh. The NIH found that Dr. Walsh had violated agency rules in at least 38 instances and had accepted over $100,000 in consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies. The doctor also promoted certain antifungal drugs for patients despite debatable evidence of efficacy, and industry affiliations that some scientists felt biased his recommendations . The LA Times delineated Dr. Walshes alleged offenses in July of last year in a damning article. The excorciation prompted a hearty rebuttal from many of Dr. Walsh's peers.

Both doctors are highly respected, have published widely, and have been with the NIH since the 1980s. They are also part of U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. The NIH has said that they have no authority over how discipline is meted out, however some members of Congress are incensed over the NIH's inaction. The September panel attempting to untangle the ethics mess was disheartened by the NIH's progress cleaning up its organization. Said Barton , "This is really an ethical Potemkin village, where a hollow system appears to provide the illusion of integrity, but transgressors never leave."

Four Out of Five Doctors Recommend Taking....

While the resolution of past conflicts of interest is murky, perhaps a change in political leadership in Washington will nudge the NIH in a more disciplined and transparent direction. A few days ago, the NIH canceled a meeting for February 23, scheduled for scientists to discuss policy for pregnant women for herpes.

The cancellation, that commentators uniformly characterized as "abrupt", followed a front page Wall Street Journal article on a nationwide education campaign that GlaxoSmithKline organized on pregnancy and herpes. GlaxoSmithKline markets Valacyclovir hydochloride, a patented oral anti-viral drug that is converted to internally converted to acyclovir. Acyclovir is an older antiviral which is also effective against the virus that came off patent in 1997. The company paid doctors to speak at conferences in hospitals across the US and advocate that all pregnant women be for herpes. Dr. Zane Brown, one member of the five person team chosen for the NIH herpes panel, is a University of Washington doctor who the company paid $1,000 to $2,500 per lecture, two or three times per week.

If testing were required it would naturally lead to more women being treated and more drug sales. But the studies have shown that the practice would be costly, with insufficient patient benefits. Furthermore the side effects and potential hazards for babies is unknown. The FDA hasn't approved the drug for use in neonatal herpes, however that doesn't prevent doctors from prescribing it, or giving lectures about the possible benefits.

According to Citizens for Science in the Public Interest, Four of the five panel members, including Dr. Zane, had financial ties to companies or organizations with interest in herpes drugs. A letter from 44 physicians and 16 health groups, including Lancet editor Richard Horton and two former New England Journal of Medicine editors, Marcia Angell and Jerome P. Kassirer, "called on director Elias A. Zerhouni to adopt an agency-wide rule prohibiting scientists with financial conflicts of interest from sitting on guideline-writing panels".So the NIH canceled the meeting following media coverage and public protest over what looked like an egregious effort by biased scientists to promote industry friendly policy.

It's not clear what lies ahead for herpes testing, but the increasingly pro-business environment in Washington perhaps coincides with an increase in pharma opportunities for NIH employees. As more and more doctors and researchers take advantage of lucrative opportunities to supplement their income working for pharmaceutical companies, government agencies have greater difficulty finding recognized experts who come without pharmaceutical associations -- or who even look like their unbiased enough to serve in policy decision making roles.

Medical research and treatment is certainly not the only area where colliding interests chafe along a hazy line between public interests and business interests, however in public health issues, the stakes are particularly high for both sides. But despite the consequences of appearing to let pharma have undue influence on public policy, it's unclear that the current paradigm will be changed.


¹This article was edited and re-published January 30, 2006

²Acronym Required commented on the proposed rules here.

The State of the Smoggy Union

The Day After Yesterday

Yesterday someone instant messaged me the joke about the "ironic juxtaposition of events". Wasn't it funny, they wrote, that the Groundhog Day and the State of the Union Address fell on the same day? The comedian explained that "one involves a meaningless ritual in which we look to a creature of little intelligence for prognostication, while the other involves a groundhog". Amusing, except yesterday wasn't Groundhog Day. Nevertheless bloggers, didn't seem to notice this fact. Similarly, last year the same joke was repeated, by countless bloggers, Last year the President didn't deliver his State of the Union Address on Groundhog Day, but on January 31, 2006.

On February 2, 2005, the Presidential State of the Union address fell on Groundhog Day. It's only happened once in history. Yet people have created their own myth by mixing up the story in the movie Groundhog Day, with the folktale of the groundhog's shadow, with the perennial fictions of the annual State of the Union addresses. Why? Are people cynical enough to predict the redundancy in the Presidential address, yet mindless of their own repetitive fiction? What is the state of our union?

Science's Silver Bullet -- The Silver Screen?

The Glamor, The Glory...Show-Biz for Scientists

Tuesday's Golden Globes award show was a far cry from the science lab, with all the glamor, the extensive grooming, and those flammable flowing getups. As the announcer opened an envelope, each newly anointed star's rendition of stunned joy seemed tearier and more heartfelt then the one before. And have you ever heard so many "thank-yous" in so few hours? Name after name blurted out in hyperventilated appreciation, fleetingly unsurpassed. Superlatives for hundreds of people in each production.

Acronym Required wrote a couple of months ago about Tony Blair's proposal that scientists should be treated more like movie stars. One thing is clear. If scientists aspire to the silver screen they should review their notions of credit giving.

You may scoff about the idea of scientists in show business. True, the closest thing to science at the Golden Globes this year was Sacha Baron Cohen's anatomically explicit tale of his suffering during the filming of Borat. And the most ambitious attempt to conflate science happened in our own little group of fans, when one person thought Bill Nighy, was actually Bill Nye the Science Guy. Not quite. But while comingling scientists and the cinematic arts may seem incongruous to you, some groups, like the U.S. military, think that engaging scientists in movies is just the ticket.

"America, it turns out, is suffering from a science and engineering shortage", explained the Christian Science Monitor, a couple of weeks ago. To change this situation, the Department of Defense is sponsoring a three day movie scripting course called the Catalyst Workshop, at the American Film Institute (AFI). The Monitor says that ideal science movies portray "authentic and appealing science protagonists". The goal is to "engage society (especially young people) in the activity of science", according to AFI's website.

Myth Bases

If using scientists to write movie scripts still sounds over the top to you, then Catalyst Workshop explains why it makes sense, starting with helpful pointers about the similarities between movie script writers and scientists:

"Most scientists already possess some fundamental skills applicable to the film making process. Successful professionals in the scientific community often have excellent writing skills and they frequently juggle projects as writers do, working on several disparate projects simultaneously. And scientists, like writers, often must manage time well to accomplish complex,creative goals."

Of course "managing time well" is not unique to scientists and writers. The skill is necessary for many jobs, including seasonal Park Aide/Maintenance Workers in the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, positions in customer service at Burlington Coat Factory, as well as all other entry-level positions. The Indonesian government counsels that the time management skills are critical to being a soccer fan in that country.

For a more nuanced analysis of the aptitude of scientists for script writing, look no further than the New York Times, which published an article on the screen-writing workshop back in August 2005. Scientists, they said:

"... search[] for the unknown, they're compensated very minimally, they're going on blind faith that what they're searching for is going to pay off. And film making is exactly the same way." ("Pentagon's New Goal: Put Science Into Scripts", 08/04/05)

A grittier assessment perhaps. However, one 2004 Catalyst workshop participant interviewed by the NY Times was straightforward about her goals: "to sell a comedy built around a Bridget Jones-like biochemist who applies the scientific method to her hunt for a mate"..

Hmmm....that's confusing. Bridget Jones, if you recall, was the main character in Bridget Jones Diary, the one who spent her time --when she wasn't chasing the misogynistic cad played by Hugh Grant-- scribbling in her diary her daily weight and her cigarette and alcohol consumption (lab notes?). Bridget Jones appeared slightly more scientist-like when a friend asked about El Niño, which is the tropical Pacific ocean-atmosphere changes, and warming fluctuations that cause global weather disturbances. Bridget replied blithely: "It's a blip. Latin music's on its way out."

Maybe I misunderstand the military's "authentic" vision for science protagonists and stories. But perhaps it's explained on Day One of the workshop in the "Myth base for storytelling" section.

Better Science Fiction

Participants in the Catalyst workshop are actually "hardcore, PhD-laden, lab-certified scientists", said the Monitor. Intrigued, we looked at the 2006 AFI workshop application that was on the website a few weeks ago, (now removed) to see how the AFI gauged hardcore-ness. The toughest question was a fill-in, asking for the scientist's "Science/Engineering Specialty_____________". Not very "hard-core" we think.

Indeed, none of the questions seem like they would derail either scientists or non-scientists. "What's the best science movie or TV show you have ever seen? What's the worst?" The AFI application offers no hint as to what qualifies as a "good" science film. In 2006, the application was a mere 92 words, dwarfed by a 560 word legal agreement. But, for me, the worst science film -- after which I avoided the genre like the plague -- was Outbreak. Stunningly bad. Dramatic images of slow motion spittle arching out of infected air travelers' mouths following cartoon-like, microbe laden sneezes.

Since this workshop is Pentagon sponsored, you have to suspect that these "best" and "worst" questions might be a weed-out tool. Catalyst Workshop participants surveyed for the 2005 New York Times article seemed unanimous in their opinion that The Day After Tomorrow was the worst science film they'd ever seen.

It's hard to deny how artistically horrible that movie was. But the premise? A scientist predicts global warming and everyone ignores him, a decision that precipitates disastrous results? Solid. But what if the Pentagon screened for opinions like that of one viewer, who wrote on a Yahoo movie comment board, that the only reason to see Day After...was if you liked to make fun of Dick Cheney and George Bush, since Hollywood had created an "unabashed head-butt to the Bush administration's environmental policy". My, my, my.

Can Geeks Write Better Scripts?

Might a few "Ph.D laden" scientists help engage viewers? It may not be such a crazy idea. Local news stations could recruit them to aid science reportage. This might improve segments like one I watch last week on my local news station. It was a piece on research published in Nature Biotechnology, about researchers who had found stem cells in amniotic fluid. The announcer relayed this exciting news to viewers in a monotone, while a montage of various laboratory activities played across the screen. First there was the Eppendorf tube on a shaker, then a hand pipetting fluid with a multichannel pipetter, then a tube being removed from a -86C freezer -- complete with dry ice wafting across the frame. Visually engaging props perhaps but completely unrelated to the story.

This would be comparable to doing a piece on baking rye bread, and while the announcer talked about preparing the sourdough starter, in the background showing various other household activities that the producer deemed more visually and audibly exciting. I can imagine the producer saying: "Watching rising dough is boring, can we get a little vacuuming footage? How about if we discharge the safety valve on that fire extinguisher and get some white powder filling a room? Can we flush a toilet, wwhishhh! then film the water swirling round and round"?

Would this nonsense be helped by an infusion of scientists in movie-making? Would this improve peoples' understanding of science issues? Or should we accept that 95% of the population won't know that toilet flushing has nothing to do with baking bread, and will also think that a multichannel pipetter is neat, and by extension so are stem cells? Is this bad for science? Is science fiction news bad for science? I

But, isn't the Pentagon's project ridiculous, you might ask? Only a week ago the New York Times reported on a funding crisis in science due to congressional budget delays. It would be "disastrous" for American science, as one official at the American Physical Society put it. How could movies help resolve systemic problems like this, and why would the military use taxpayers' money there instead of for more fundamental problems? We can't say.

But there you have it. Scientists are essentially cheap labor. Their time management skills might be useful, especially if they have on hand an appealing and "authentic" script already written, so that they can effectively utilize days two and three, of the Catalyst Workshop, "Story and Pitch", and "Pitch Meetings".

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