February 2007 Archives

Autism Research Revisted

Economist Researches Child's Disease

The Wall Street Journal posed a challenge to scientists in yesterday's paper: "Is an Economist Qualified To Solve Puzzle of Autism?" WSJ author Mark Whitehouse looked at the controversy stirred up by Cornell economist Michael Waldman's study¹ last October that linked TV viewing to autism. In "Does Television Cause Autism?" Waldman used precipitation records and cable subscriptions as proxies for TV viewing, then performed statistical analysis to correlate television watching with incidence of autism.

Waldman was motivated to study autism by his family's experience with his young son, who was affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder. In response to his son's diagnosis, and in addition to doctor recommended therapies, he curtailed his son's television watching. To his surprise the child recovered completely. However he was unable to engage doctors to study whether TV caused autism, so he studied the connection himself. He found a causal effect in his study and recommended that parents not allow young children to watch TV. As the WSJ article recounts, many researchers don't agree with his conclusion.

Scientists, autism researchers especially, were most critical, but economists also questioned his methods. Although his methods weren't unheard of, some economists said the "instrumental-variables technique" was imperfect and others said it tempted economists to study topics they're "not particularly well-trained" to study. Acronym Required wrote a satirical post on the Waldman's study last October².

Starting Your own Autism Foundation

Despite the impression given by the Wall Street Journal, Waldman's self-reliant approach to setting a science research agenda is not unprecedented. Other people whose kids are afflicted by autism have also poured personal resources into autism research.

A 2005 Wall Street Journal article, "A Hedge-fund Titan Stirs up Research into Autism", tells the story of mathematician James Simons, who, motivated by his daughter's autism, founded an organization that plans to spend over 100 million dollars on autism research. The 2005 WSJ article noted the controversy over Simons' funding:

"When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked him for money for brain research, he demanded that the project focus on autism and include scientists he liked. He has provided his family's DNA for study, pitched in to help solve research problems and is pushing scientists to probe a genetically based explanation for the disease."

"Many are cheering this influx of cash, hoping Mr. Simons' riches can buy a breakthrough. Others complain that Mr. Simons isn't working with existing autism groups and that his focus on finding a genetic explanation could miss the disease's true cause."

Scientists have discovered genes that could account for one or more aspects of Autism Spectral Disorder. The Yale Child Study Center is partially funded by the Simon's Foundation.

Genetic vs. Environment? Touchy Subject

Yesterday, two years after their coverage of Simon's initiative, the current WSJ article draws back the curtain of controversy:

"by suggesting that something within parents' control could be triggering autism, Prof. Waldman has reopened old wounds in the realm of autism research, which is littered with debunked theories linking the disorder to the family environment."

The WSJ quoted senior vice president of Autism Speaks and mother of an autistic child, who said: "Autism is a genetic disorder. The only thing the parents do wrong is they have bad genes." Autism Speaks was founded by two years ago by Bob Wright, Vice Chairman and Executive Officer and GE Chairman of NBC Universal, whose grandson is autistic.

The WSJ quoted "Ami Klin, director of the autism program at the Yale Child Study Center, [who] says Prof. Waldman needlessly wounded families by advertising an unpublished paper that lacks support from clinical studies of actual children." Aside from the contention that Waldman somehow harmed the patients, Klin says Waldman's conclusions conflicted with results of previous clinical trials.

The possessiveness of hypotheses for fear of hurting patients' feelings doesn't seem like a sane approach the patient care. If Waldman does solid research, why shouldn't economists study autism? Wouldn't parents appreciate a solution today, as opposed to one that entails decades of research and development? How does Walman's research hold up to scrutiny? That's the question.

Genetic vs. Environment? Touchy Subject

The WSJ also quoted Klin sayng: "The moment you start to use economics to study the cause of autism, I think you've crossed a boundary." Yet is the question really about whether economists can study science problems? Economists contribute significantly to fields including psychology, ecology, and international development. Their contributions to science could be substantial -- as are science's to economics.

Scientists distort the issue by focusing on parental blame, or whether an economist can contribute to research. Shouldn't we just look at whether a specific paper more approximates rigorous research or Swiss cheese?

The connection between autism and TV would best be studied in controlled experiments between groups of children, but according to the WSJ, economists don't have the "money or the access to children" to perform this kind of research . Waldman's paper was criticized because it drew speculative conclusions and was advertised in a what amounted to a sensationalist press release as opposed to being published in a peer reviewed academic journal.

While Waldman et al may have been swayed by conviction, their resulting study didn't meet the standards of the autism community, psychologists or neurobiologists. As WSJ reported, Joseph Piven, director of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said of the confounding variables, "It is just too much of a stretch to tie this to television-watching...[W]hy not tie it to carrying umbrellas?"

Did the paper meet economist's standards, a skeptical reader's standards, or for that matter the own researcher's standards? Scientists ideally start from a neutral position then work to disprove their theories, in order to prove them to themselves, their peers, and the world. Social scientists approach problem solving similarly. If the paper was representative of the field of economics, we might look at economics and its influence with renewed skepticism.

Why not just conclude that this particular exploration, however well intended, wasn't that rigorous, and/or didn't seem to support the author's conclusions and final recommendations. Waldman perhaps used his reputation in another field to build media interest around this hypothesis. He's not the first researcher to flip the scientific process on its ear. Other scientists have announced "results" prior to publication, with various motives. Perhaps his move was strategic, but it remains to be seen whether this economist can circumvent the research process to successfully demand that the science community study his hypothesis.

-----------------------------------------

¹ The original paper "Does Television Cause Autism?", is posted online at NBER working papers and from the Cornell website. Read it for yourself. What do you think?

²Last October, Acronym Required wrote "Autism, TV, Precipitation: Dismal Science", a satirical 10 step research how-to for repeating the results of Waldman's original paper.

Who Controls Information?

Colleges Ban Wikipedia

The New York Times published the story this week about colleges encouraging students to use sources other than Wikipedia as references for academic work. A professor in Middlebury College's history department initiated the policy after several students wrote on an exam that "the Jesuits supported the Shimabara Rebellion in 17th-century Japan". The professor noted that there were few Jesuits in Japan at the time and they were "in 'no position to aid a revolution'". Middlebury College is not the first to forbid references to Wikipedia¹, it's a growing trend.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, said he didn't consider Middlebury's decision "negative". Of course the definition of "encyclopedia" (or -"paedia"), is "course of general education" not, as some would have it -- 'a collection of definitive answers to all questions'. Others point out that Wikipedia is a tertiary source, not a secondary or primary source suitable for college essays.

The New York Times writes that the problem with Wikipedia is accuracy, however others aren't as critical, for instance the courts. Another New York Times article found that, "100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia, beginning in 2004, including 13 from circuit courts of appeal, one step below the Supreme Court". Several studies have concluded that Wikipedia's information is comparable to other sources like Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Nature devised one of the studies, an "expert-led investigation" of 50 entries about scientists and scientific concepts. ("Internet encyclopaedias go head to head", December, 2005. Nature 438, 900-901). The journal appointed experts who deemed 42 of 50 articles surveyed "usable". The unusable articles included four each from Britannica and Wikipedia, which contained inaccuracies like "misinterpretations of important concepts". The review also found articles with "factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively".

Internet Time vs. Britannica Time

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, responded to the results, telling Nature he wanted to recruit more "experts" to write the articles. One reviewer said people would find it "shocking" to know how many errors were in Britannica. Britannica, lifeblood apparently draining, wrote a charged rebuttal (.pdf) to Nature's study. It began: "Everything about the journal's investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading." Over the next 20 pages it vilified the report as "poorly carried out", "error-laden", "without merit", and "without value". Britannica published the defense on its website three months after Nature's original story and took out an ad in a London paper demanding a retraction.

By the time Britannica got around to it's rebuttal people in and out of the media had digested Nature's results. A few questioned them, for instance one New York Times writer asked one of Nature's experts why he had flagged a fact in an article as inaccurate when his own book contained the same fact. ("The Nitpicking of the Masses vs. the Authority of the Experts". January 3, 2006). Other reporters distilled the results less analytically under titles like this: "'Nature': Wikipedia is accurate" (USA Today Dec. 12, 2005).

Nature wholeheartedly defended its methods and conclusions and refused to retract its article. For whatever reason, the journal was in the middle of an encyclopedia war -- and strangely -- on the open access side. Its article helped convince people that Wikipedia was more than just World Wide Web whimsy.

For its part, Britannica fought the perception that it was seeing its life flash before its eyes like a door in the face of an encyclopedia salesman. The Wall Street Journal (September 12, 2006) hosted an email forum between Mr. Wales of Wikipedia, and Dale Hoiberg, senior vice president and editor in chief of Britannica. Wales cited some links to articles critical of Britannica data. Hoiberg replied that there was ample criticism of Wikipedia too, but he didn't have it handy. Wales emailed back a Wikipedia.com link containing the entire body of criticism on Wikipedia, and took the opportunity to pedantically explain the joys accessing information instantaneously. Hoiberg cited Britannica's "trained editors and fact-checkers" and "more than 4,000 experts", processes, and strict editorial control. Wales taunted that those words were "fitting for an epitaph".

How do we Know?

Is it important that so called tertiary sources are squaring off about who's more accurate, or that colleges are urging students to use primary and secondary sources? Some commentators virtually shrugged. But important questions about how people verify information, what information is trusted, who can publish information and who controls information are at the heart of these debates. When bloggers began producing content, newspapers ranted on and on about how worthless blogs were. Many still do, although they also incorporate blogs into their online content. The PLoS publishing model motivated scientific publishers to hire PR firms who coined deceptive one line: slogans like"Public 'access equals government censorship'; 'Scientific journals preserve the quality/pedigree of science'; and 'government seeking to nationalize science and be a publisher'"

Wikipedia claims that anyone can publish information (with some limits). Many people criticize this model. The New York Times published a piece last month, titled "Anonymous Source Is Not the Same as Open Source". In it, the author said that employing "secondary epistemic criteria" is necessary to verify sources. "Once upon a time, Encyclopaedia Britannica recruited Einstein, Freud, Curie, Mencken and even Houdini as contributors.The names helped the encyclopedia bolster its credibility." The author's quote speaks well, if inadvertently, to the inherent problem. Who's an authority? Houdini may be a font of information but should he be plunked so close to Einstein? Should Freud be slipped next to Curie -- with only a comma separating them? The author continued: "The egalitarian nature of a system that accords equal votes to everyone in the ''community'' -- middle-school student and Nobel laureate alike -- has difficulty resolving intellectual disagreements." To the author perhaps Houdini is an authority to reference. To some he may be an authority on magic tricks of yore but nothing else. But Houdini may also had some insight up his sleeve on some other subject that would be a very valuable addition to Wikipedia. Wikipedia users could judge.

The author says we need to proxies for authority to assess information. Health and science data is especially daunting to assess, therefore we often rely pedigree. So credentials become the proxy for assessing knowledge, occasionally to a fault, as in: Nobel Laureate trumps Professor trumps Associate Professor trumps Assistant Professor trumps MD/PhD trumps Lecturer trumps Resident or PostDoc trumps PhD trumps MS trumps BS trumps Harvard Dropout trumps BA (or something like that). In science the gold standard for research is redoing the experiment, but such testing is usually impractical. These judgments often work, obviously, we will trust our doctor over a spam mail advertising the benefits of herbal health enhancers, but if we put too much faith in credentials or publishing record, we can unwittingly cede our power to evaluate information.

Government as Information Arbiter?

There's some literature out there on this subject and we stumbled across this paper titled: "The problem of online misinformation and the role of schools". The author proposed a two part solution for schools. One was to teach skills to help students assess data, which he fleshed out considerably. Secondly he suggested assigning "intermediaries" to vet sites and "promot[e] reliable sources of online information". For this, he proposed "government-sponsored Web portals and librarians". As far as I know, librarians already do this, so we focused on what he meant by "intermediary". He used medical information as an example of information difficult to evaluate for validity. He cautioned about the potential drawbacks and biases of many types of information sites even those from trusted government sources. He recommended MedlinePlus, part of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) as a good source for students because it was free of bias, amply funded, a well organized, and carried the right pedigree, which he defined as: "18,000 staff, including thousands of physicians and scientists in white lab coats, 106 of whom have been awarded Nobel prizes."².

It's certainly a sound enough recommendation, but nothing is this simple. Frederick Seitz probably wore a "white lab coat". He is a very credentialed PhD physicist, the recipient of the National Medal of Science, the Franklin Medal, the Herbert Hoover Medal, the Defense Department Distinguished Service Award, as well as two NASA Distinguished Service Awards, and The Compton Award. He is a President Emeritus of Rockefeller University Former President of the National Academy of Sciences, Recipient of the Fourth Vannevar Bush Award and the R. Loveland Memorial Award of the American College of Physicians, former President of New York City Commission for Science and Technology, Former Chair of the United States delegation to the U.N. Committee on Science and Technology for Development, as well as over 20 honorary degrees.

Seitz used his stellar credentials to obtain a job working for tobacco companies', and on their behalf he argued for several decades that cigarette smoke was benign. He also used his credentials to rally scientists against climate change evidence. He cited his awards to establish a foundation used to advocate "sound science", that bolstered political positions in order to undermine real scientific evidence. He often inserted himself and his impressive credentials in between business and public health, especially when business interests seemed in conflict with public health risks.

Reference Regulation

This isn't to denigrate the expertise of scientists and doctors and lawyers, but upon occasion experts are as fallible, capable of bias or deception as non-experts. In science and medicine, sycophants to pedigree have enabled huge sweeping, expensive catastrophes and personal tragedies. Renowned scientists have produced false data, and a recent study found that 44,000 to 98,000 Americans a year die from medical errors, many from credentialed doctors.

Nevertheless, everyday as consumers of information we must make decisions; judge the validity of a medical study funded by pharmaceutical companies, learn why science facts are excised out of government science reports, and try to figure out whether the "man on the street" is being candid about the technology or astroturfing while we live our busy lives.

Banning Wikipedia may rightly force students to find alternative sources of information but what data is reliable? Are professors guiding students, elaborating about how history books can be slanted? Do they explain that newspaper articles can distort the facts, as can the evening news? What biases do they bring to their lectures? Are we saying that primary sources don't have opinions, that their value systems are not intermingled with their accounts? We can hopefully vouch for the fact that primary sources said what they said, if they're speaking on camera, but do we know they meant it? Marketing and public relations have altered the landscape and many people have no compunction about standing up and lying on camera. Scientist who do primary research recognize the myriad challenges to designing and conducting experiments to generate and report accurate, relevant data. Pedigree is a very imperfect standard for assessing truth, as is the internet.3

The skill of assessing sources should be honed in college by practice not rules. A professor can be the arbiter of sources for a semester, and a college or librarian may serve that role for a few years, but our future depends on students mastering these skills for life.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

¹We're biased. We like encyclopedias (in general). We love Wikipedia's mission and are forever impressed with the information we find. We often link to Wikipedia to give readers background to subjects we editorialize. We also choose not to link to Wikipedia when articles about controversial medical procedures or public health/policy issues understate risks or read more like product literature.

²Suggesting that the government sanctioned sources is different than the proposed Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 (FRPAA) which would require federally funded researchers to post papers online after six months.

³ There is a book on this called "Who Controls The Internet?" that's well-argued.

H5N1 Data Sharing

Last year, as avian bird flu H5N1 skipped around the world decimating bird populations and fatally infecting clusters of humans, governments near and far felt increasingly threatened by the possibility of a influenza pandemic. Tension and mistrust increased among countries at a time when full cooperation among them was essential to public health.

Countries promised $1.9 billion to a United Nations avian flu program but had yet to fulfill their pledges. The World Health Organization (WHO) established a repository for virus information from member countries at the Influenza Sequence Database (ISD) at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 2004, but the agency had a spotty history trying to deal effectively with infectious disease and was accused of beholden to the "gang of fifteen" labs given access to the data. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also committed to sharing data, but like the WHO, answered to their member states and could do little to compel countries to share resources. Private labs, the CDC, and individual countries like Russia, and China, had all been withholding data and biological samples, sometimes because of poor international relations, concern about intellectual property rights, or concern about credit for their contributions.

In response to the fragmentation in the research community, scientists, politicians and public health officials fulminated, concerned that hording virus and sequence samples would hobble effective responses to outbreaks. In February of 2006, Italian influenza scientist Ilaria Capua called on fellow scientists to promptly deposit their sequence data into gene banks."'Most of us are paid to protect human and animal health,' she said, 'If publishing one more paper becomes more important, we have our priorities messed up.'" ( Science 3 March 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5765, p. 1224)

By August she and about 70 influenza research allies, along with international consultant Peter Bogner, announced the establishment of a new, more open and collaborative system. Capua, Bogner, David Lipman, Nancy Cox and the others submitted a letter to the journal Nature announcing the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), a more collaborative and egalitarian effort to collect and share data in the scientific community.

The project is now set up and expected to begin accepting sequence data. Last week Science wrote that the database will live at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) in Geneva. According to the article, access to the database will be free to people who register and accept the terms of use. Those who submit data have 6 months to take submit patents and scientific publications before their data becomes publicly available.

Last summer, people welcomed the initial announcement of GISAID and had high hopes for the collaborative approach. Yet some scientists are reserving their opinions until they know the exact terms of the agreement, still undisclosed. Others are openly skeptical of Bogner's motives, and wonder out loud why a media privatization mogel who is better known in skiing and sailing circles would pursue such a venture. For his part, he says he understands the issues scientists have with data rights from working with musicians. According to collaborators he has infused energy and financial backing to the project, and according to Science, might help bring future corporate funding .

Will sharing data help the frayed international relations? Emily Fitri of the Jakarta Post wrote her perception of the country's untenable situation in an article this week. Its unclear how well this represents the government's position in the wake of its agreement with Baxter. In summary she thought Indonesia and poor countries should be incensed for being used as "petri-dishes". While Indonesia struggled with geographical and informational challenges to containing bird flu she said, wealthier countries take cultures to study and make vaccines without offering assurance that whatever resulting remedy will shared with the country for an affordable cost. Indonesia has a right to be angry she says:

"There is a local saying cacing pun marah ketika diinjak, literally translated as even a worm gets upset when stepped upon. This must seriously be pondered upon by those with greater power to review their initial righteous intentions of creating a better world."

Indonesia said earlier this week that it would share data as soon as it is promised affordable vaccines. Perhaps GISAID will help promote the cooperation that is needed but it seems like a daunting challenge. Whatever relations are in place before a pandemic will be further tested in a crisis. Russia is in the midst of trying to control recent H5N1 outbreaks among birds in 8 villages around Moscow. The Moscow Times reported on the situation this week:

"A sign reading "Quarantine" welcomed a steady stream of vehicles passing through the checkpoint. The vehicles slowed down to drive over disinfectant-soaked sawdust intended to clean their tires. The traffic policemen took turns standing out in the icy wind and stopping drivers, ordering some to open the trunks of their cars and show their documents in a temporary cabin nearby."

The country is trying to vaccinate all birds and control the outbreak. One could imagine this scenario anywhere in the world. Some Russians interviewed for the Moscow Times article said that the control methods were arbitrary and that drivers circumvented the blockades by driving through surrounding villages. Others said it was a lot of hoopla for nothing. One veterinary worker who the Moscow Times interviewed commented: "Two chickens die and all this blows up. It's ridiculous."

Scientists agree that international cooperation is necessary to prevent infection and develop vaccines, and in the case of contagious human infection, to contain the disease and distribute medicines. Hopefully GISAID's accomplishment in meeting its six on-line month goal will reinforce the hope it engendered last August and help promote cooperation that citizens of the world are dependent on -- granted, a tall order.

-------------------------------------------------

We also wrote about Avian Flu in these articles: Avian Flu v. Everyday Plagues, "Hopes For Avian Flu Vaccine"; "Modeling Epidemics", and "Avian Flu in China- Increasing Resistance", "Avian Flu Updates", and Avian Flu Pandemic -- Officials Save The Date"

Communicating Climate Change

| Comments

Summary: 'We don't believe them anymore, those CEI authors who insist with a straight face that global warming science is a plot of "socialists and communists". We're wise to their tactics. Nevertheless, we feel sorry for them when they pathetically claim that because of their "efforts to educate the public, Greenpeace has repeatedly targeted [them], by stealing their garbage on a weekly basis...."'

Climate Change Communication-- Does It Work?

The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) met last week in San Francisco, California and convened a panel on communicating climate change. The AAAS website summarizes the panel's take home message: "More communication of climate change science won't spur problem solving, says CU researcher". The panel was based on a book by coeditors Lisa Dillings and Susanne Moser called: "Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change." According to the AAAS panel press release:

"The notion that more information about the science of human-caused climate change will spur effective problem solving by American society is just flat wrong, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder climate policy analyst."

As Dilling put it: "What we do know is that handing out fliers about the consequences of climate change and assuming people will change their ways doesn't work". She added that most people don't connect their own energy consumption with CO2 emissions.

We were eager to delve into the book, to learn about these issues, pull out pithy quotes and interesting facts and share them with you, but since the book is listed for over $100 on Amazon, so you'll have to buy it yourself. For now, we'll make assumptions based on the bits of the book that Amazon gives sneak previews of.

Communication Doesn't Work -- Really?

Taken at face value, the conference press release states the antithesis of what we've observed over the years. We read it and thought -- Really? Communication isn't working? True, once we would have agreed with this premise. For years, it seemed as if peoples' concerns over climate change were diminishing even as more and more scientific evidence for global warming piled up. Intelligent people, our friends even -- with no ExxonMobil holdings at all-- dismissed the facts of climate change!

Last April, in considering my options for gloomy posts on this sorry state of affairs, I had half a mind to just post a link to HappyNews.com and call it a day. Instead Acronym Required published a weary review of the so called "two sides" of the climate change debate and titled it "Sea Change or Littoral Disaster". We noted: "Each headline that shows more evidence of warming is greeted with hope from those who believe that the naysayers really, really do need one more piece of evidence to convince them. Then the barrage of squawky letters to editors follows from the people who insist the science is all flawed."

Since that post, there has been a palpable, almost surprising change in public acknowledgment of climate change. Yes, we have a year's worth of research, but as well, there's corporate attention, the movie "The Inconvenient Truth", more evidence of warming and melting and extreme weather events, an election that put leaders who recognize the importance of the climate issue in charge, as well as the bi-annual report from the International Panel on Climate Change IPCC. All of these communication efforts have all helped sway public perception. The media has also changed its tune, from the relentless and nonsensical even-steven coverage of the so-called both sides, to a more truthful representation of the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change.

When we reflect back on 2006, it seemed that this tangible change in recognition of climate change was one of the most hopeful events of 2006. As opposed to the conclusions of communication panel, I credit this sudden recognition with ALL the skillful and urgent communications. Am I naive? Granted, the authors in the AAAS paper talk about communication not representing people's willingness to change. But isn't the first step towards a solution just acknowledging the problem? Perhaps, if we dare believe it, communication is actually working wonderfully.

Communication Works

Challenging the AAAS authors' point, if communication doesn't work, then why do the CEI and AEI and conservative public relations firms, not to mention individuals like Horner, work so hard at communication? If communication didn't work, why has ExxonMobil pumped $19 million dollars into disinformation campaigns about global warming? If communication doesn't work, then why do all these organizations put so much effort and money into getting their messages across? If communication doesn't work than why is every other ad on television for a shiny new automobile, as the automobile industry insists on selling SUVs, despite global warming.

To make her point, Dilling says that 90% of people think that global climate change is serious or very serious but only 1/3 of people find this "worrisome" -- a number that the authors say has been growing smaller until "very recently". But perhaps this corresponds to the oil companies' political campaign over the same time period which sought to present global warming as "not a problem"¹. Is it completely coincidental that people surveyed responded with the exact answer that was the message of the conservative groups against global warming¹? And perhaps the "very recent" increase of people who find global warming worrisome corresponds to "very recent" surge in communication and research about the problem -- Gore's movie, IPCC, etc.

The message of climate change skeptics protects the status quo by presenting an easy action item for the public -- do nothing. If you choose to do nothing your evidence is that somebody says climate change is not a problem. That's arguably an easier, more appealing action item than the effort required to cut back on CO2 emissions. Cutting back on consumption threatens our "core values", those directly advertised everyday on TV, in magazines, from media attention on consumption by celebrities, as well as core values expressed by President Bush. Anti-consumption is a hard sell these days. Regardless, communication has undoubtedly spurred the change in attitude. Where would we'd be if we hadn't made the effort?

Dilling's book probably goes into good detail as to the reasons why climate change scientists felt like the message wasn't getting across. But perhaps the multi-million dollar campaign pushing the conservative line, "don't worry"; overpowered the alternative message with the grim vision about "changing our lifestyles".

Communication from the Ideological Right

Clearly not everybody has acknowledged climate change, most disturbingly, The White House. The Bush administration won't step forward on the issue, perhaps because they're still all ears to their loudest constituencies. Fox News trots out the party line and occasionally breaks from serving up fare such as "What it's Like to be a Hooters Calendar Centerfold", to advise the Bush White House on climate policy. The Fox News blog "Junk Science" agitated noisily when the White House announced it was considering a measure to list Polar Bears as an endangered species last December:

"Rather than issuing the proposal in a tentative and low-key manner, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne issued a media release and reigned over a press teleconference."

"It's a futile gesture that only signals a weakening in the Bush administration's heretofore strong stance against global warming hysteria."

Heretofore, we would know that the moment "Junk Science" published those words "global warming hysteria", we'd be hearing them in future conversations with our climate change challenged friends, who would spew the exact phrase in their tedious argumentation. Now, it's not as likely. Last April we wrote about "George Will and his ilk" and the relentless climate change denial brigade. Now his ilk have less of an effect on our opinions.

Not to say that all the forceful naysaying has simply melted away under the bright lights of the IPCC report. Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), for instance, who in the past found an audience in the Senate for his negative opinions of international climate treaties, is making media rounds publicizing his book, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalists". Horner says he never denied climate change, it's just that the climate changes and that's not proof of anything. The difference between now and last April, in my opinion, is that these arguments aren't salable to the general population.

To my point, Horner appeared on Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, where he insisted to an unimpressed audience, that climate change is large scale plot of conspiring anti-capitalists. The audience sat, silent, tense, disbelieving, except the time they just broke out laughing. That was after Horner said that "wherever the so-called socialists and communists are in governments anywhere then they are in coalition with the Greens".

Horner proposed that the only reason that industry might appear to be complying [by acting on climate change] is to obtain a "get out of jail free card" from the Greens. "The powerful Greens??", Stewart scoffed. Stewart and his audience weren't buying any of it. Horner appeals to a self-selecting audience, for instance stating on his website that because of his "efforts to educate the public, Greenpeace has repeatedly targeted Mr. Horner, by stealing his garbage on a weekly basis...." That is sad.

We've long been educated and are now familiar with tobacco's denials of the links between cancer and smoking and also know that the same denialists have been recruited for the global warming cause. We've read the papers, we've seen the oil profits, we've heard the scientists and the bloggers. But when, exactly, did the campaign to discredit global warming lose its edge? When public opinion got nudged into a downward spiral by the Bush administration's blatant mendacity in Iraq? The federal and state bungling of Hurricane Katrina? Gore's movie? The newspaper editorials? The freakish storms and extreme weather events? Somewhere along the line communication changed public opinion.

Communicate but Don't Relax

While we think we see the tide turning, we're not smug or righteous. To Americans, Horner may sound nuts. But in context of a European audience (where the Green Party actually has a place in government) his neo-liberal parry makes more sense. In fact, even the Democratic Party of the United States has worked to undermine the already quite small Green Party of the United States. The Democrats have blamed the loss of key races on the Green Party, and when one mayoral race in California became quite close three years ago they sent Bill Clinton, Al Gore and a parade of Democrats to campaign for the Democrat candidates to stand up to a viable Green Party contender. In Europe, social-democratic governments are foundering economically but the governments that have Green Party representation are also the ones that ratified Kyoto. Is Horner trying to appeal to the Democratic Party? Is he trying to link the global warming movement to a marginalized political party? To the Europeans?

But even corporations are responding to current climate change. Business practices that save energy and makes environmental sense, and business sense. Given that Horner represents business interests, he's unreasonably fixated on a outdated and ideological message, if not certifiably paranoid about what he called the "Communist threat". Nevertheless, he's unyielding and clever in his goal to garner allies for his cause He's perhaps too easy to underestimate.

They'll Fix it

If we've moved beyond the climate change "debate", however, as I argue we have, we've only entered another stage. I'm not sure what to call it, but it if we appropriated something like the familiar five stages of dealing with catastrophe- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, then maybe people have moved on to some sort of denial/bargaining phase. People's minds fill their minds with ideas about how we can buy our way out, with some carbon credits, some alternative energy, or some prizes. Again, this is procrastination. If buying our way out doesn't work, at least we've bought some time.

Companies have visibly increased their marketing budgets to make it seem like they're "green". Electric companies put up websites with ads that urge people to take the bus. ExxonMobil runs full page ads in the Wall Street Journal that state: "actually, we're working to reduce emissions for 6.5 billion people". The stock market swoons, not at that happy little marketing message, but because aside from the message, there are glorious ExxonMobil oil profits, in the range of $36.1 billion in 2006 -- $1,146 per second -- $6 dollars per year of oil profits for every human on earth. One money manager frothed: "I think if oil prices stay north of $50, this company is going to continue to have tons of cash... this company is going to be minting money."

With much fanfare, Richard Branson offered a $25 million dollar prize to someone who can figure out how to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. He delivered the announcement standing next to a smiling Al Gore, who in "The Inconvenient Truth" mocked those who would continue polluting, then try to the earth cool down with giant ice cubes.

There are actually technology schemes that are underfunded and might have potential. People talk about storing CO2 in caves, about "artificial trees with "leaves" that absorb the gas, solar-powered scrubbers, and carbon-sucking towers in Antarctica".This is all very optimistic, but I can't help but be reminded of a chef acquaintance, a consummate practical joker. When new assistants started working in his kitchen he would invariably ask them to run an errand for him. It was an emergency, he'd explain, waving his arms frantically, a mishap with his soup de jour...Could the assistant kindly run like the wind, across town to Chez Chez and ask them for a huge favor - to borrow their pepper extractor? The Chez Chez kitchen would comply with a straight face, sending back some useless tool, a slotted spoon say, explaining to the underling its hidden powers. It wasn't a serious culinary lesson about the futility of trying to remove spice that has been too exuberantly applied to a vat of soup, just a failing source of amusement to most involved (except the exhausted assistant). Nevertheless it has a familiar ring.

Branson acknowledges that the schemes might not work, and that people need to curb their output. But that's not the dominant message. Like most businesses, he's more keen on continuing his own company's growth, and significant pollution, than having his freedom to pollute curbed by carbon regulation. Silicon Valley businesses are currently very active hosting alternative energy panels at venues in the Bay area, that quickly sell out at $20 and up per ticket. Businesses are more eager to pursue profitable energy "alternatives" for the future, than to stop pouring carbon into the air now. Citizens are happy to let business figure it all out for them. This new bargaining is an extension of the last message actually -- you don't need to worry. You don't really need to do anything, lets see if someone can invent something. Change is too difficult and no fun, lets not think too hard about that, lets try to buy or bargain our way out -- I can pick up some milk and butter and carbon credits at the store on the way home honey....

Not everyone is controlling the communication about climate change, but some people are, and consumers are busy acting according to the messages they're receiving from those strong communicators.

-------------------------------------------------------

¹McCright, Aaron, Dunlap, Riley, (PDF) Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative. Movement's Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy. (PDF) 2003, in Social Problems Vol 50(3) 348-373. (McCright is one of the authors of the book, this is a interesting study that he co-authored (that's not in the book))

--------------------------------

Some related Acronym Required articles:

On Climate Change denial: Sea Change or Littoral Disaster

Business and Climate Change: "Carbon Emissions Disclosure Project"

Ice core research to study atmospheric conditions 650,000 years ago: "Holocene Days"

Politics and climate change: "Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?".

Carbon emissions regulation after Katrina: "The Environment & Katrina-Slick Oil Fallout"

Drought in the "Amazon", and in "Australia".

Science research communication and climate change: "Research, Politics and Working Less", and "Science Communication".

Polyheme Phase III Trials Disappoint

| Comments

In late December, Northfield Laboratories announced the results of Phase III clinical trials of Polyheme, a hemoglobin based oxygen carrier (HBOC), that ended last summer. The Wall Street Journal reported the negative results in "'Preliminary' Findings Of PolyHeme Death Rate Suggest Approval Setback"(12/20/06). We learned that 712 trauma patients with trauma and significant blood loss enrolled in the study. 46 patients treated with Polyheme died, versus 35 control patients who died from standard treatment. 13.2% of the Polyheme patients died versus 9.6% of the patients of standard treatment. The standard for care is to give saline to the patient during transport only until donor blood is available at the hospital.

The response to the negative news was immediate. Quite a few people suddenly distanced themselves from Northfield Labs. West Virginia University hospitals, who enrolled in the Northfield study and is listed on the clinicaltrials.gov site, issued a press release saying that even though ambulances were carrying Polyheme,"The drug, PolyHeme, was never used on any patients in West Virginia, according to Dr. Lawrence Roberts, director of WVU's John Michael Moore Trauma Center". (italics ours) The doctor defended the choice to participate in the study while dismissing the product: ''The data looks like the patients that got Polyheme had worse outcomes. That implies this stuff is no good and you can't use it."

Investors, brokers and some financial reporters, who had once rabidly attacked reporters and sites that brought up patient safety concerns, started echoing "I told you so" headlines back and forth to each other. The stock sunk from $17 to $4. Northfield Labs' CEO, Steven Gould presented to an investor teleconference last month and the WSJ noted his eternal optimism, saying he was

"'encouraged' and 'optimistic' that the company's blood substitute soon will become the first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to revive hemorrhaging patients." [WSJBurton, Thomas "Blood Substitutes Face Long Odds History, Scientific Concern Hamstring Sector" February 13, 2007].

None of this bodes well for patients. The negative results potentially impacted past patients who probably did not receive optimal care for their situation. Doctors, emergency workers and the military as well as future patients would benefit from a new product that delivers oxygen, survives storage and transport, and doesn't require blood matching.

In this clinical trial Polyheme's success is judged according to a simple but slightly unusual criteria. The goal was to show that the product "superior" to, "not inferior" to, or "inferior" to the standard treatment. The future of the product depends on how many people survived the Polyheme group as opposed to the control group. Northfield is now striving to get the FDA to label the Polyheme "not inferior".

The CEO called the shaky results "preliminary". He said that some of the data had errors because of "protocol violators", that is patients who were enrolled who for one reason or another should have been excluded. When these patients' data was removed from the analysis he said, then the results of the study looked better and would fair more favorably in an FDA review. True enough, the protocol violators died more frequently. Of the 126-patient "protocol violator" group that Northfield seeks to exclude, according to an analysis on Thestreet.com, by Adam Feuerstein, there was a large difference in death rate of patients getting Polyheme (17/70 or 23%), versus the controls (7/56 or 12.5%). However, since the trial was originally structured for patients with significant blood loss and trauma. Feurestein points out:

Northfield designed an ambulance trauma trial for Polyheme because it wanted to see how the blood substitute performed in the real world, where all kinds of patients are bleeding to death from all sorts of accidents. After the fact, when the results aren't to its liking, the company can't go back and argue that Polyheme works, but only when conditions are perfect.

Actually, Northfield also chose this particular patient cohort because previous trials of Polyheme (similar to other HBOCs) failed when the products were applied in routine surgery and non-trauma situations. These trials ended badly for patients, so the companies turned their attention to critical care scenarios where donor blood wasn't an option. Since we're at war (perpetually, now), there's a huge potential military market for these products which coincides with the uptick in FDA interest. But will the FDA will allow Northfield to meet the trial's patient quota with "protocol violators", then in retrospect exclude those patients? Some financial analysts like Feuerstein are doubtful. The FDA's actions will also be followed with interest by those in drug development, and those concerned with patient safety and clinical trials.

Northgate's Phase III trial attracted initial controversy because it necessarily waived patient consent in order to study severely injured trauma patients. The trial involved giving a blood substitute in lieu of saline during transport, and for 12 hours after the injury once donor blood was available. Doctors and people involved with patient ethics questioned whether communities were being educated adequately about the trials. People also probed why participating doctors and medical centers seemed unknowing about previous failures with the blood substitutes. Fortunately for Northfield, all of this controversy only heated up three years into the trial. Northfield stopped enrolling patients just a few weeks after a story about patient consent aired on 20/20.

However the next trial for an HBOC will be conducted differently. The FDA recently denied the company Biopure, Northfield's neck and neck competitor for over 20 years, latitude to conduct a Phase III trial with its competing product Hemopure. Instead it will conduct a Phase II trial with fewer patients and the use of Hemopure will only be allowed until donor blood is available.

Despite years of work and promises, some people doubt the HBOC's viability, due to decades of failures in clinical trials. The WSJ quoted a former medical director of Biopure Corp. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a company that makes one of Polyheme's competing products Hemopure, who said that the '"totality of the data' on this class of products is that 'so much harm has been shown, without benefit, that the field should be stopped.'"

------------------------------------------------

Acronym Required previously wrote about Polyheme and Hemopure in Polyheme© and The Newest Plastic Bracelet. We looked at the history of the products, focusing on on Northfield and Biopure, in Polyheme& Hemopure: Life Savers? Products to Die For?

My Lab Thanks You For Smoking ♥♥♥

| Comments

Academic Freedom?

Today the University of California Faculty Senate meets again to debate the pros and cons of the University continuing to accept research money from tobacco companies. It remains to be seen whether they will act on this agenda item or not, as they have been debating banning tobacco money for many years.

The current round of debates at UC is fueled in part by a recent federal court ruling. On August 17, 2006, the court ruled against Phillip Morris in United States v. Philip Morris USA, Inc for violating Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act, and for "fraudulent corporate actions" and "disingenuous relationship with academic research institutions". The decision is being appealed, but is convincing enough to be used as fodder in this latest round of debates by those at the University who are lobbying to ban tobacco funding.

Responsibility for making the decision about tobacco funding has become a bit of a political hot potato; the Faculty Senate recently passed the issue to the Board of Regents, who in turn passed the issue back to the Senate. The regents have the final say but are advised by the Faculty Senate. Since 1995, the University has received about 108 grants totaling $37 million dollars from tobacco companies. The University will point out that the tobacco money is only a small amount of the total grant money. It received $15.8 million dollars in ongoing tobacco grants from Phillip Morris in 2006, out of $4 billion of contracts and grants awarded that year.

For those who favor banning tobacco, the court ruling provided more credence to evidence that the tobacco industry thwarted and influenced research. According to information at UCSF, the schools of public health at Harvard, John Hopkins, Columbia; Emory, Harvard and John Hopkins medical schools, as well as some international universities ban tobacco money.

In fact anti-tobacco money advocates point out that the University of California is now the only university that forbids individual departments or schools from declining tobacco money, a rule the Faculty Senate passed in 2005 after several UC entities independently ruled against accepting tobacco funding.

Blanket Ban?

People argue that researchers should be solely responsible for the soundness of their own potentially controversial science research programs. But there is evidence that not all researchers at the University of California were frank about their connections to tobacco, and that not all scientists who received tobacco grants published research that was sound or honest.

Some faculty object to the ban, saying that barring money from tobacco would create a slippery slope and open the doors to more funding source curtailments based on arbitrary ethics or morals. But slippery slope scenarios don't seem to be a problem at other schools that bar tobacco money.

Drawing an analogy from (controversial) history about the American Indians and their demise from smallpox infected blankets, one faculty member likened tobacco money to smallpox infected blankets. They quipped; "we like to stay warm, we like blankets, just not from Jeffrey Amherst guy and his cronies".

UC is reluctant to ban tobacco money for many reasons, but the academic freedom argument seems to gain the most traction. The idea of a ban repels many UC faculty, who cringe at the thought of imposing rules on what faculty members can or can't study. To counter this, other faculty argue with equal vehemence that accepting tobacco money impedes academic freedom by biasing research outcomes.

Interestingly, the individual freedoms argument, in the form of libertarian rationale, is commonly used to support tobacco sale and use. The book by Christopher Buckley and movie "Thank-You For Smoking" is based (humorously) on this argument. Amartya Sen criticized the use of libertarian arguments against public smoking bans in a Financial Times editorial Monday titled, "Unrestrained Smoking is a Libertarian Half-way House".

Second-hand smoke causes health consequences to non-smoking victims as well as smokers. If people should be free to smoke despite the known health risks, than society is left with uncomfortable choices. We can systematically deny smokers and their smoke related illnesses the myriad public resources that come to their aid in disease. This is an unconscionable decision of "a monstrously unforgiving society", says Sen. Or all the smokers must be treated and everyone else bears the cost, despite our massive body of knowledge about the inevitable disease burden caused by smoking. Notes Sen: "We should not readily agree to be held captive in a half-way house erected by an inadequate assessment of the demands of liberty".

Based on the August 17th conclusions of the court, the continued acceptance of Tobacco's investment in research only abets the tobacco industry's substantiation of false claims about the benign affects of smoking. While tobacco companies profit, systemic health problems of smokers burden the health care system and raise insurance costs. These costs ponderously burden the UC system, its insured, and the state of California. Whose sense of liberty is this?

No doubt the Senate will argue all of these points vigorously. It remains to be seen how or if they will act.

-------------------------------

♥♥♥The movie "Thank-You For Smoking" humorously, but in all seriousness, presents libertarian arguments for smoking.

NOTE: The Academic Senate postponed the vote until May.

CORRECTION (May 7, 2007): This article previously compared information in an article in the journal Science, to several documents listed at the library on the UCSF site. Here's one. (Link opens Acrobat!) We wrote the following: "Science wrote in, "UC Balks at Campus-Wide Ban on Tobacco Money for Research" (January 29, 2007); "...the University of California (UC) has delayed voting on a plan to impose a blanket ban on research funding from tobacco companies. If approved, the ban would make UC the only U.S. university to forbid tobacco dollars campus-wide."..." Acronym Required's original article cited the UCSF website information indicating that 21 U.S. Universities and Centers "decline tobacco funding". We have since contacted most of the universities listed on the UCSF site and couldn't duplicate UCSF's site information that 7 universities had campus wide bans, although many schools have units that disallow tobacco funding. All of the schools we contacted from the UCSF list allowed researchers to accept tobacco money, but most also allowed schools to institute bans, which UC does not. Some universities we contacted were under other constraints such as state guidelines around accepting tobacco settlement money while accepting tobacco industry grants. A more recent list of campus-wide policies (A.R. has not verified) is here.

"Frontline" Airs "News War"

Back to the 70's

PBS "Frontline" airs the first of a four part series tonight, called "News Wars: Secret Spin and The Future of News". According to the show, in the aftermath of Watergate journalists enjoyed a level of respect in a touted "watchdog" role. That role and the respect attached to it has now diminished under political, economic, and legal pressures. The show will cover a lot of ground, but one question it ponders is whether American media can continue to be withstand these current pressures without morphing into insignificance, or becoming a compliant agent of state and corporate interests.

Some people might not care about these issues. I'm sure some believe that news and its demise or survival is irrelevant or even beneficial to blogging and that the print news and its future have little to do with science. However for years people have complained that mainstream news more often delivers pablum then news. Most of us readily question that which is called "news" is, as does the show. Even this site, Acronym Required, was partially spurred into existence by the fact that science in mainstream news was incomplete, misleading, and often inaccurate. What actually put us over the edge was a television news story that presented Lyme tick arthritis as a threat comparable in scope and severity to the AIDS epidemic. We've hardly remained faithful to the original purpose, and now there are hundreds of science blogs that cover these issues succinctly, as well as blogs on history, economics and politics that do also.

Jon Stewart has been addressing quality of news issues on The Daily Show for ten years. Academic studies and even the mainstream media acknowledge that the Daily Show is a more comprehensive compendium of current events and politics as a "fake" news show than most evening news shows. A contingent of independent journalists, citizen journalists, and bloggers fill in the gaps of traditional media. When the New York Times writes front page articles supporting the war in Iraq based on unquestioned "leaks" that reporters receive from White House officials, as they did during the build-up to the Iraq war, or publishes a front page story supporting administration's agenda against Iran, as they did yesterday, independent journalists and bloggers step in to take a stand.

Not content with accepting obsequious news for information, many readers seek out independent journalists whose writing, observations, protests and collective blogospheric activity fits their own world view or satisfies curiosity not met on the evening news. Journalism that is not mainstream has become increasingly important. Lowell Bergman and Steve Talbot of "Frontline" spoke to the influence of the internet in their talk about the upcoming "Frontline" show back on January 11th. While recognizing the web as a disruptive force on traditional media, they also stated that 85% of new information is delivered via traditional reporting. They seemed to acknowledge that new media is a force to be reckoned with while at the same time questioning whether it is capable of the challenge it sets for itself. Or whether in the end it would be subsumed by traditional media. To wit, they reported (and we don't know what's happened since) that "The Daily Show" was being courted by the Washington Post to cover the 2008 campaign. This is the same Washington Post that asked just last year whether Jon Stewart was "An Enemy of Democracy?"

Other than to mention the web's sometimes beleaguered image, we won't dwell on this theme now except to note that blogging or its approach has a place on most mainstream papers, albeit after much kicking and screaming by those same papers. Even some major editorialists like the New York Times' Frank Rich have incorporated the online style by including hyperlinks to outside sources within recent Times editorials. Why shun sensible technology?

Going To Jail

What is potentially more threatening to independent bloggers and citizen journalists than being incorporated into traditional media, are the new strong armed tactics of the government. While science bloggers aren't necessarily writing contentious topics that would prompt government crackdowns, censorship will have a widespread effect on many independent journalists.

To this end, "Frontline's" "News Wars" also addresses the issue of who has the right to publish. The show notes that the Judith Miller case established the prerogative of government to demand a journalists' sources, something that since the 1970's has been completely off limits. The government is now using this precedent to prosecute other journalists who try to protect sources. Documenting this history, the show contends that we haven't seen this type of encroachment on journalistic freedom for 35 years.

Again, independent journalists and certainly not scientist journalists might not feel an immediate chill from these developments. However citizen journalists and independent journalists potentially have the most to lose. Large, established media outlets, like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, can afford to hire lawyers to protect their journalists from the types of legal demands that the government is making. However independent journalists who try to cover news not covered by traditional media don't necessarily have the legal and institutional resources to back them up.

Josh Wolf is one such journalist, imprisoned for the last six months in a Dublin, California federal correctional institution for refusing to share his sources with a federal grand jury. He was interviewed for the Frontline show, and was also interviewed from his jail cell for the show Democracy Now yesterday. As an independent journalist, Josh filmed a G-8 protest in San Francisco. The Federal government became aware of the footage via his site, and claimed that he had more film footage that federal prosecutors could use to investigate whether crimes were committed during the protest. They also wanted to use him as a witness against protesters. Josh refused to turn over the footage. The state of California affords journalists the right to protect sources. However federal prosecutors are circumventing California State law in order to imprison Josh Wolf.

Furthermore, in a January 29th document, according to Democracy Now, federal prosecutors stated that it was in Josh Wolf's "imagination" that he was a journalist. Asked by "Democracy Now" to comment on the characterization, Wolf questioned the right of the state to designate who was and who wasn't a journalist. The Society of Professional Journalists named Josh Wolf Northern California 2006 Journalist of the Year and awarded him the James Madison Award for Online Journalism.

Wolf noted that newspaper journalists faced with similar charges are threatened with imprisonment based on circuit court decisions, whereas he was imprisoned immediately after his hearing, and has been incarcerated throughout ninth circuit court proceedings. Martin Garbis, Wolf's lawyer, notes that the grand jury is a thinly veiled attempt on the part of a joint terrorism task force to identify and persecute people who are hostile to the Bush administration.

These new rules on how journalists are allowed to report could continue to frame how independent journalism is or isn't allowed the freedom to contribute to how citizens think about pertinent issues, matters of science, history, politics, or international affairs. The Frontline show will address these and many other themes central to today's journalism. Based the January 11th presentation the shows seem like they'll be really compelling. The third hour deals with the fate of the Los Angeles Times, which has been pressed by it's nonlocal corporate owners to discontinue investigative reporting, and has also faced significant and destructive reorganization. The fourth hour was outlined in January by Bergman and Talbot, they thought it might cover a South Korean site called OhmyNews.com. However the show wasn't completely edited at the time and the current Frontline website suggests that the final hour might highlight the role of Arab media in influencing politics and news.

Global Warming 1958 -- "This is Baaaddd??"

Mr. Scientist...would you marry me?

The New York Times writes that the 1958 movie production "The Unchained Goddess" is "another delightful entry in the Bell Science Series", a "felicitous collaboration" between Hollywood director Frank Capra and animators Shamus Culhame and William T. Hurtz. The video features human characters Dr. Research (Frank Baxter) and The Fiction Writer (Richard Carlson) who "set out to explain how weather is created and how scientists have endeavored to predict and control it". Their joined by several animated cohorts:

"...foremost among them the beautiful but somewhat haughty Meteora, the Goddess of Weather (whose long gown rather resembles the funnel cloud of a tornado) and her subjects: Winds, Clouds and Rain."

The Times called it "a copacetic blend of entertainment and education", and notes that it "became standard fare on the high-school classroom circuit after its original 1958 telecast".

Mr. Scientist: Even now, Man may be unwittingly changing the world's climate through the waste products of his civilization. Due to our release through factories and automobiles every year of more than six billion tons of carbon dioxide, which helps air absorb heat from the sun, our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer!

Fiction Writer: "This is baaad?"

Yes, Mr. Scientist explains, because tourists will have to view Miami's skyscrapers through glass bottom boats (appropriate fish, boat and skyscraper animation).

Not in the clip but later on, perhaps swooning under the heat of his intellect, Meteora sinks to the occasion, according to IMDb quotes:

"Meteora: Mr. Scientist, would you... (a woman could never ask this, but certainly a goddess can!)... would you marry me?"

Diabetes Data in the Public Domain

The Broad Institute announced the release of a genomic map based on sequence data of Type II diabetes afflicted individuals and controls yesterday. The group will make the information accessible to scientists worldwide via the internet. The Diabetes Genetics Initiative is a joint effort of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Novartis (NVS) and the Lund University in Sweden. In 2004 the Broad Institute and Lund University formed the collaboration with Novartis to utilize the unique resources and contributions of each organization in studying diabetes and metabolic diseases.

Type II diabetes, caused by a growing trend of unhealthy diet and lackadaisical exercise habits, is a public health health problem that affects about 180,000 million children and adults worldwide. In-patient health costs for diabetes patients were $3.8 billion in the U.S. in 2001. The goal of making the data public is to encourage researchers from around the world to contribute to the significant effort of developing knowledge and treatment of the metabolic diseases.

-----------------------------------

Acronym Required previously wrote about diabetes in Diabetes. Heavy Living and Lite Reading, and Childhood Obesity, The American Way. We wrote about science data in the public domain in Accessible Research For All, By All- The Government, State, Universities and NGO's, and Dutch Research- Free!

DHS: Glacial Reorg, Passing the Buck

DHS Management Woes

A survey of federal employees in 36 federal agencies recently found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a massive department with over a hundred thousand employees, was at the bottom of the rankings:

  • 36th on job satisfaction.
  • 35th on leadership and knowledge management.
  • 36th on results-oriented performance culture.
  • 33rd on talent management.

Just last week news outlets reported that various concerned parties criticized the agency on its borders program, its treatment of asylum seekers, and its management of contracts.

The agency's troubles aren't new. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) put DHS on its "high-risk" list as the agency faced significant management challenges in its mission to combine 22 existing agencies into one. The designation indicates potential for failure with catastrophic consequences. In 2005, the GAO kept the DHS in the "high-risk" category, because the agency had not made significant progress in several key areas such as financial accounting, information technology, and meeting goals previously highlighted by the GAO. This year the GAO put DHS on its "high-risk" list yet again because the agency failed to make the requisite progress.

In his address to the House Homeland Security committee last week, David Walker noted: "The current financial condition in the United States is worse than is widely understood and is not sustainable." However the security threats the US faces demand that DHS "operate as efficiently an effectively as possible in carrying out their missions." The GAO criticizes DHS leadership for many things including lack of transparency and slow progress meeting objectives. During his first outing to the new Congress last week, Secretary Michael Chertoff, a former judge, responded to questions and criticism about the DHS. He defended the the agency's progress, saying in his opening remarks:

"the Department of Defense took 40 years to get configured properly and the first secretary of defense committed suicide."

We're not sure whether someone should call a helpline on his behalf or whether, more likely, his statement was part of a defensive tactic to sooth his potentially hostile audience. Another official DHS official reported to a congressional committee looking at reports that DHS wasted millions of dollars:

"It is still the case that the department is just a collection of disparate, dysfunctional agencies," Ervin said. "There is yet to be an integrated, cohesive whole."

Then when ABC news interviewed a spokesman for Homeland Security about its dissatisfied employees, the spokesperson blamed the media and its focus on FEMA for the "low morale".

The official comments, if relayed even partially accurately by these sources, indicate that the Department of Homeland Security is trying to muddy the waters around its management responsibilities and evade culpability for its awful track record. We'll just pass that buck along, thank you very much, they seem to say.

FEMA -- Once Lame and Now Lame Again

DHS officials cast a wide net all the way to the media to find someone to blame. It's a familiar ploy, however its unpersuasive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was one twenty-two departments rolled into the DHS when it was formed in 2003. FEMA received very well deserved criticism during and after Hurricane Katrina, but the media doesn't control or manage FEMA, FEMA and DHS do.

Many of the agencies rolled into DHS were no doubt "dysfunctional" before the reorg. But to unmuddy the waters a bit, we should point out that contrary to assertions, FEMA, for one, was not always dysfunctional. Acronym Required wrote several articles about the agency's performance during and after Hurricane Katrina and took a look at the history of the discombobulated organization.

In "FEMA-Turkey Farm Redux?", we reported that FEMA was once the laughing stock of government. In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when George H.W. Bush presided over government, Senator Hollins once commented that the FEMA staff was "as sorry a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses as I've worked with in my life". Through the early 1990's the agency continued to be known by unkind labels such as "a turkey farm", and "a political dumping ground". Four-fifths of FEMA's employees were dissatisfied according to one survey.

But FEMA turned itself around during the Clinton administration under James E. Witt. Many people were taken aback by the suddenly effective agency, including Senator Feinstein, who practically gushed: "I really think FEMA is a new agency...it is the difference between day and night".

FEMA is once again dysfunctional, now that its been subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security. The MBA President's administration formed the dysfunctional DHS, and the dysfunction prevails despite intense post Hurricane Katrina FEMA scrutiny and reorganization. We all know that the challenges of public management can be stupendous, but can the US afford to condone continual failure in such a critical organization?

Management in Never Never Land

Is Chertoff suggesting that forty years is a management turnaround timeline suitable for the 21st century? Although he may be well on his way to meeting this goal, it doesn't seem as though the Department of Homeland Security is stepping up to the type accountability demanded by effective businesses or government. Not to mention, the image of responsibility shirking doesn't become the Administration of the MBA president.

According to the President's government management plan we have a new type of government now, one run more like a business. The administration announced the new management plan back in the summer of 2001 and fleshed it out in the document "The President's Management Agenda", released in 2002. At the top was a quote attributed to Governor George W. Bush. Government always "begins" things, he said and, "declare[s] grand new programs..." But this isn't the way it should be.

".....What matters in the end is completion. Performance. Results. Not just making promises, but making good on promises. In my Administration, that will be the standard from the farthest regional office of government to the highest office of the land."

Bush wanted to revamp a government full of "underperforming agencies..[that] rarely face consequences for persistent failure". His agenda pledged a new era where "high performance will become a way of life." Under the sub-heading "Manageable Government", the President's promised to "focus on results", and to "impose consequences" on lackluster performing agencies.

"Underperforming agencies are sometimes given incentives to improve, but rarely face consequences for persistent failure. This all-carrot-no-stick approach is unlikely to elicit improvement from troubled organizations"

But in a recent 240 word summary of progress called "What are our management practices like today? (1/30/07)" published on "Results.gov", DHS, the agency well known for its catastrophe bumbling and financial incompetence, escaped mention. Results.org is dedicated to tracking the administration's government management goals. The performance summary mentions two agencies that apparently have "the greatest ability to be effective", and six others "who did what they said they would do this past quarter". High standards indeed, but DHS wasn't among these agencies.

Optimistically, Results.org points out that "most agencies continue to make good progress on the Faith-Based, Real Property and Improper Initiatives...". Perhaps the agency performed these amorphous goals superlatively? Because the President visited DHS this week and said that he was "proud" of the work they had done on terrorism. OK, there's the carrot, but where's the "stick", and who is accountable for these "grand plans" for government reorganization?

---------------------------------

Acronym Required previously commented on FEMA and GAO in the Project & Process Management part of the site.

follow us on twitter!

Archives