Category: Science Policy

AAAS 2017 Conference Recap

The program book for the 2017 AAAS conference. Photo by me.

The program book for the 2017 AAAS conference. Photo by me.

This year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held it’s annual conference in my neck of the woods (Boston) so I was able to take a few days away from the office to attend. In the realm of conferences that someone in my field might consider going to, AAAS always stands out because it isn’t strictly a communication conference, and it isn’t strictly a science conference – it’s definitely both, with a generous dose of science policy thrown in for good measure. For its range of content AAAS attracts a very eclectic group of attendees. Anecdotally, I think the conference caters a lot to young people, but there are plenty of mid-career and established people who attend as well.

This was my third AAAS conference, and I think the value of science communication is becoming more and more apparent because it has taken an increasingly important place in the conference line up. Thursday (February 16, 2017) the first day of sessions, I attended the communicating science seminar, which was a lineup of three different panel talks the topics of which were: “Who’s your audience?,” “Scientist motivations, support, and challenges for public engagement,” and “The online scientist: social media and public engagement.” I think all of these sessions were sculpted to appeal to scientists more than science writers but there was a lot to get out of them as a science writer.

A few of my key take aways or sound bites from the communicating science seminar are:

  • Look for opportunities to inject science communication into events and programs that already exist, ie: setting up a hands on science booth at a local fair, to bring science into the fabric of a community.
  • Policy is shaped by the relationship between science, the decision makers, and the public. If the public doesn’t understand or doesn’t like the science, the public pressure on the decision-maker to choose an option not supported by the science can be great – this is why having strong public engagement and understanding of science is so important.
  • There is a difference between simply pushing out information and engaging with people, getting them to feel invested in the science by building a relationship.
  • Most organizations are designed with a top-down power structure, but the public often isn’t looking for top-down lectures from scientists. Adult-to-adult conversations can go a long way toward making people feel respected and thus willing to listen to what you have to say.
  • Try to avoid preconceptions about where people are starting from in their scientific understanding, and acknowledge that sometimes you are not the best person to lead a specific conversation or event. It can be incredibly valuable to facilitate the leadership of others by helping to clear their path.
  • You can step out of the role of “the expert” without abandoning your expertise. This looks like having a conversation instead of a lecture. It includes listening to people as well as sharing what you know.
  • Remember to read the room and consider the personal dynamics to gauge what type of communication is likely to provide the biggest rewards.
  • Often scientists [and communicators] think that informing the public is the goal, but perhaps the goal could be to help the public identify the scientific information that is valuable and useful to them. This might change the relationship people have with science and scientists.
  • Two of the most common barriers to science communication and outreach for scientists are time and a lack of institutional buy-in that engaging the public is a part of the job rather than a side interest. The ideal scenario is one in which science communication activities are seen as helpful to one’s career as a scientist.
  • People enjoy being told a story, it is often easier and more like science to provide just the facts but for the public facts need framing. Giving the facts context can go a long way toward communicating their value.

Overall Thursday brought a series of interesting conversations, with a great lineup of speakers who brought a nice array of points of view to the table. There were a lot of scientists in the room (they did an informal poll by show of hands) who self-identified as interested in doing more science communication, which I think is a great thing. This shows scientists have bought into the importance of outreach and are looking for avenues to explore. A lot of these lessons about effective engagement of audiences are applicable in my work too. For me, the most striking thing was that respect for the people you’re trying to reach is key.

On Friday (February 17, 2017) Naomi Oreskes gave a plenary talk called “The Scientist as Sentinel” that touched on a lot of the ideas that were mentioned during the communicating science seminars. Oreskes is the author of the book Merchants of Doubt about the scientific “experts” brought in to shape public opinion and policy on everything from smoking to climate change. It’s a wonderful book, and, though it certainly filled me with righteous indignation, I would encourage everyone to read it. Oreskes’ talk was about the role that scientists can (and should be encouraged) to take in standing up for their science and themselves. She started off by saying that often scientists want there to be a bright line between science and policy, and as such they tend to want to “let the facts speak for themselves” because speaking up publicly about science dulls that bright line.

Oreskes talked about how their is a continuum of ways scientists can approach defending their work ranging from completely hands-off, leaving it to others to communicate with the public, all the way to the activist ideal, suggesting policy and perhaps even demonstrating (or getting arrested) in defense of the work. She advocated that scientists could seek middle ground, as a “responsible scientist” model of outreach.

The description of Oreskes talk in the program. Photo by me.

The description of Oreskes talk in the program. Photo by me.

Oreskes made the comment that [with regards to climate change] what is rational is to be alarmed, and what is irrational is to be complacent. Scientists, who bask in the identity of being rational, can therefore identify the value in speaking up. She brought up the idea that climate change denial is not about facts, because, if it were, the alignment between a person’s political affiliation and their beliefs about climate change wouldn’t be so strong. When arguments aren’t about facts, they can’t be refuted with simply more facts. When it comes to scientifically controversial issues, the argument is often the same, if we deal with [insert issue here] it will lead to bigger government, and thus constriction of our freedoms. It isn’t a scientific controversy at all, but a clash of political ideologies. Scientists aren’t going to get very far bringing climate data to an economic and political ideology battle.

Oreskes put our current landscape for scientists speaking up against the historical backdrop of the scientists who spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons. Often, these were scientists who were involved in their creation. Her argument was that those scientists never lost scientific credibility for the act of taking a stand. Their science is still regarded with respect by their peers and the public. The same can be true for scientists who take a stand today. One of her closing thoughts was that scientists who have become the target of personal attacks were not attacked because they spoke out in public, instead they became public figures because they were attacked for their work. Ignoring the situation will not help or insulate scientists from the need to defend important work.

For me, Oreskes talk was one of the highlights of the conference, and I’m glad I was able to attend.

Of the rest of the sessions that I attended over the course of the conference there are two topics that stood out to me as particularly important (and about which there were several sessions each). The first is CRISPR, and the ethics, policy, and scientific progress being made with regards to human gene editing. The second was fake news and the distortion of facts. Both of these seemed like trends with regards to what people are concerned about and interested in.

From the CRISPR sessions, one of the main ideas that I took away is that if (as is currently recommended by the National Academies) human gene editing is only urged for “serious” health problems we need to define what counts as serious, and determine who gets to make that decision. If we are urging against changes that could be considered “enhancements” we need to find the line between treatment and enhancement, and, again, decide who will make that decision. If we’re looking to our government to make these policy decisions, it’s important to remember that, due to the separation of church and state federal scientific agencies (such as the Food and Drug Administration) don’t have the mandate to take religious beliefs into account when making decisions, despite the often religious-based concerns held by the public.

From the fake news sessions, what I walked away with was a sense that while it is a problem, there is reason to hope because fake news has always existed. Media has always been fragmented, rather than monolithic, and there have always been issues that Americans did not debate civilly. Fake news used to be found most often in the fringe – radio, newsletters, and in face-to-face conversations. The internet has changed the accessibility and spread of fake news. But even “traditional” outlets like television have been responsible for the spread of false ideas, like the fact that a majority of Americans believe that Sarah Palin uttered the words “I can see Russia from my house” when really it was Tina Fey, pretending to be Palin on Saturday Night Live. From all of this it may seem like people don’t care about or respect science, but they do. If you didn’t value science, you wouldn’t want to have facts or data on your side. Perhaps there is a way to tap into that trust in science.

Overall it was a conference that was very applicable to our current science communication landscape, and that left me with plenty to think about with regards to how I can be most effective in my job moving forward.

Note: I did not individually call out many of the speakers in the sessions I attended (though I did link to some and all can be found in the AAAS 2017 program). This is because, by and large, what I’ve written here is my synthesis of what I heard, sometimes combining several speakers and mostly put into my own words. I did not want to put responsibility for my interpretation of information on someone else unless I felt confident that my notes could accurately quote them. I do want to be very clear that these are not original ideas of mine but my interpretation of what others shared.

BioTechnology Patents: Kyoto Claims iPSCs

Can you patent a gene? What about a cell? When it comes to the components of life, and more importantly the ideas, processes, and procedures developed to manipulate these components, what belongs to who? This is a question that is certainly going to be fought out from the patent office to the courts as more and more biomedical discoveries are made.

iPS cell cluster. Source:

One discovery that has recently (meaning August) been in the news for patent applications is Shinya Yamanaka’s 2006 discovery of the combination of genes that can be used to reprogram adult cells to a pluripotent (capable of becoming any kind of cell) state. With these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) lies the hope of a suitable answer to the debate over the need for pluripotency, but the social and religious controversy over using human embryonic stem cells (which are naturally pluripotent).

While working at Kyoto University in Japan, Yamanaka found that the genes Oct3/4, SOX2, c-Myc, and Klf4 are key to pluripotency. This discovery led to the creation of the first iPSCs. Now, five years and millions of dollars in research later, Kyoto University has obtained patent rights for iPSC technology in six nations and two regions, including the United States. This development leads me back to the question I started with, can you patent a gene? What about the ideas or technology based on those genes? Apparently, you can because Kyoto University has. But, I’m still quite curious about how this will play out functionally.

The discovery of iPSCs was huge news. It prompted researchers around the world to start working with iPSCs, many of whom have subsequently made their own discoveries, published their own research in peer reviewed journals (just type pluripotent into PubMed you’ll see what I mean), and expanded greatly on the existing body of knowledge about pluripotency. This includes the discovery of numerous variations of gene combinations that play a role in pluripotency. So if Kyoto University owns the original idea, do they own everyone elses’ work too? According to university spokeswoman Akemi Nakamura, they do. Nakamura says the patent broadly covers variations of the technology developed since 2006 in laboratories around the world.

In a press release the University stated:

“The US patent covers combinations of nuclear reprogramming family factors comprising an Oct family gene, a Klf family gene, and Myc family gene; or an Oct family gene, a Klf family gene, and a cytokine. This means that if companies use a combination of the nuclear reprogramming genes and generate iPSCs, regardless of the kinds of vectors, they need to get the patent license.”

So if Kyoto University owns the right to the genes, and the subsequent developments based on the genes what does that mean for iPSC researchers? Right now the university says it will not restrict research using iPSCs for non-profit purposes, so that would mean research whose end goal isn’t the marketing of a specific product based on iPSC technology will be able to continue unhindered. Companies that want to work with iPSCs for profit may have to pay a licensing fee. Although, it is important to note that not all iPSC research is based on these genes – there are other combinations of genes that can induce pluripotency, and thus lines of inquiry in this field that don’t belong to Kyoto University.

How important all of this will be, and when it will be important is a bit murky. iPSCs have their own problems (namely, teratomas) and haven’t yet been developed for widespread, let alone commercial, use. Though, with all of the resources being poured into iPSC development, I think it is only a matter of time until the cells become more useable. This is a story to watch, it is hard to say exactly how it will work out but it is sure to be an issue that continues to come up.

As for me, I’m not really sure where I fall on this issue. I can see the need to protect intellectual achievements and make sure that the wrong people don’t profit, but at the same time I wish it wasn’t necessary and open inquiries could be pursued without people having to worry about others cashing in on their ideas. If only it could be that way.

An Extinction Intervention

Over the course of the year doing grad school work at UW-Madison, I’ve written a few different articles for class assignments. I’ve decided to publish this article here, though it should be noted that this was written in December 2010 from interviews conducted throughout the Fall of 2010. I feel that the information and perspectives still hold a lot of value, so I wanted to share it anyway.

Managed relocation is a potential solution to the biodiversity loss posed by climate change, but the policy’s unpredictable risk ignited the scientific community in a debate that questions how society views conservation in the context of impending extinction.
Every summer, your backyard garden produces a cornucopia of vegetables because it gets enough sunlight and rain to make your plants bloom. But, then your neighbors plant trees in their yard that cast a shadow on your garden. Without sunlight your plants wilt and suddenly its goodbye tomatoes. So what do you do? Well, next year you move the garden to a sunnier spot. Problem solved.
Moving your garden to a sunny spot is an easy way to keep up with the changing environment of your backyard, but would it work on a larger scale?
The rapid changes to ecosystems around the world predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) include the widespread extinction of species that don’t adapt fast enough. That is, unless a policy like “managed relocation” — the shifting of species to new environments to counteract the affects of climate change — can be implemented successfully.
Some conservationists in the United States have jumped on the idea of managed relocation. The most notable project so far is the transportation of the Torreya (Torreya taxifolia,) a conifer tree, from Florida to North Carolina by the independent group the Torreya Guardians. Whether the Torreya experiment will work is unknown, but it has drawn attention to the risk associated with relocating species.
Torreya taxifolia
via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike moving your garden to that perfect sunny spot, moving species involves a fragile web of ecological connections that when broken, could create more problems than solutions.

Managed relocation is exemplary of an overall trend in ecology toward an interventionist approach focused on species. This trend is a challenge to previously established conservation policy that focused on protecting habitat to help species, and has opened debate about whether human meddling will save or sacrifice Earth’s biodiversity.
David Richardson, Professor of Ecology and Deputy Director of Science Strategy at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa,) says whether more attempts at managed relocation will be made and whether they occur with the sanction of government will depend on the success of projects like the one conducted by the Torreya Guardians.

“A few spectacular failures would probably nail the coffin on the concept,” said Richardson in an email message. “Managed relocation is undoubtedly very risky and the practice could cause more problems than it solves. But then, losing species is also very risky, so the price of taking no action could be very high, perhaps higher than undertaking managed relocation.”

The Risky Business of Managed Relocation

Moving species through managed relocation poses both a risk of total failure, and a risk of extreme success. The fragile connections between species in an ecosystem cannot be easily replaced, and even the most heavily researched relocations can fail completely. Unexpected new connections can also form, causing a species to explode in their new habitat and become invasive.
“The way managed relocation gets framed is that it is a trade off,” said Jason McLachlan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. “On the one hand you don’t want species that you care about to go extinct, but on the other hand we have a bad track record with moving species around. We come with good intentions but cause more problems.”

According to Ralph Grundel, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Porter, IN the complex science of moving species is enough reason to be skeptical that managed relocation will succeed. Grundel’s own work relocating the Karner Blue Butterfly only a few miles away from its natural range has failed, even after extensive research into the habitat specifications needed by the species.
Karner Blue Butterfly Source: Wikimedia Commons

“When you introduce a new species into another species range, you are rolling the dice because you don’t know how the species will interact,” said Grundel. “It can be really challenging, so aside from the ethics of whether we should meddle, our ability to succeed if we wanted to do these things I’m pessimistic about.”

With debate mounting about whether humans could or should micromanage the survival of species, researchers like McLachlan and Grundel say that a redefinition of the way the US thinks about conservation is needed to consider the ethical problems posed by intervening.
From conservation to intervention

According to Ben Minteer, Associate Professor at the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University, for over a century the United States’ stance on conservation (outlined by the Endangered Species Act) has been to protect species from human involvement in the species native environment.  But, if the habitat can’t be maintained – due to climate change – then a new policy will be needed.
“Now things are changing,” said Minteer. “In the most extreme cases we have to go in and round the species up and move them to a place that is different from their native range. If we don’t do that we’re committing them to extinction.”
According to Minteer, the majority of researchers who have investigated the implications of climate change on biodiversity are in agreement that a plan is needed for future action. But, whether managed relocation is that plan is uncertain.
 “What we are going to be forced into is this strong interventionist approach to conservation,” said Minteer. “I say this with a heavy heart, but we are moving toward a planetary management situation where we become much stronger manipulators of the landscape to make it more amenable to saving species, and to make sure that it provides the services that humans depend upon.”
More harm than help

“We really don’t know what we’re doing,” said Jessica Hellmann an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. “But everything that we do has side affects.”
Hellmann says managed relocation can be thought of like a medical treatment. Cancer patients are given chemotherapy even though it has detrimental side affects, because the treatment is more beneficial than the side affects are harmful. Managed relocation may be a treatment for species suffering from climate change, but researchers don’t know if the benefits will outweigh the side affects.
Researchers are experimenting to figure out which species can be moved, and where they can go based on climate change models. “We want to create the sweet spot,” said Hellmann. “You want the population to be successful, you just don’t want it to be so successful that it starts overwhelming other species and damages the ecosystem.”
While some researchers are busy figuring out the feasibility of managed relocation, others have taken a different approach to finding solutions to the extinction problem posed by climate change.
“We aren’t going to be good at managed relocation, and the consequences of not being good at it go back to this larger issue of how we as a society deal with changing climate,” said McLachlan.
According to McLachlan, instead of trying to make solutions like managed relocation feasible researchers should attack the underlying problem, climate change itself.

“The idea that any of these other plans is going to be easier and less expensive than just reducing green house gas emissions isn’t true,” said McLachlan. “At least with green house gases we know how to reduce them and we know it would work.”

When compared, the uncertainty of managed relocation makes the certainty of reducing green house gas emissions a sensible undertaking.

“Right now our path is to totally perturb the earth and then go around and fix it afterwards,” said McLachlan. “If you don’t like that option, you might think about not breaking the entire Earth system in the first place.”

According to Grundel, the United States is in the middle of what he calls “devilishly difficult decisions,” about ecological policy. While researchers may be at odds about human interference, one thing is certain – rash future action could trigger unexpected detrimental effects.

“We’re doing an unprecedented manipulation of earth’s atmosphere, but we can’t predict the dynamics,” said McLachlan. “The answer is we better be careful, everyone lives on this planet, so it’s really not a good idea to do an unprecedented experiment on it.” 

Bronx Zoo Cobra Found On Twitter

Last friday the Bronx Zoo (that would be in New York for those of you unaware) announced that it was missing an Egyptian Cobra (which is poisonous) from its reptile house. According to the zoo, the 20-inch snake is most likely in the vicinity of the building, which was immediately closed off and is being searched.

An Egyptian Cobra. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The missing snake was fodder for late night comics like David Letterman, and has made a media buzz. However, for the skeptics among us who don’t buy the zoo’s story that the snake didn’t escape into the public, there is now a Twitter account that is assuming to chronicle the snake’s adventures as it roams Manhattan. Proof that the snake’s more than 35,000 followers probably didn’t have a whole lot to do with themselves today…but entertaining nonetheless.

Update 3/30/11 – As of 4pm BronxZoosCobra has more than 150,000 followers on Twitter. Glad to see that people can have a sense of humor about something like this.

Update 3/31/11 – At 4pm today the Bronx Zoo announced that the Cobra, which was missing for seven days, was found in a section of the reptile house which was closed to the public. The snake was found coiled in a dark corner, and will “rest” for a few days before being returned to the exhibit.