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Published: Mon, 26 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Mon, 26 Jun 2017 20:36:22 -0400

 



EPA Bureaucracy Strikes Back: The Case of the Board of Scientific Counselors

Tue, 09 May 2017 10:45:00 -0400

In the 1980s British sitcom Yes, Minister, Department of Administrative Affairs Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby regularly frustrated the efforts of the Department's Minister Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP to enact reforms, reduce bureaucracy, or change policy. In fact, Sir Humphrey seeks, as a matter of principle, to uphold and maintain the status quo in the civil service. This notably includes maintaining the prestige, power and influence of the civil service. Consequently, Sir Humphrey seeks to stymie any efforts that Hacker makes toward preventing the expansion of the civil service or reducing the complexity of its bureaucracy. From the point of view of the bureaucrats, as Sir Humphrey observes, "It makes very little difference who the Minister is." The efforts of the permanent bureaucracy at the Environmental Protection Agency to hand the the new political leadership a fait accompli regarding the membership of that agency's Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) brought to mind the antics of Yes, Minister. The civil servants at the EPA had apparently assured the members of the BOSC whose three-year terms were ending that they could stay on for another term just as the Obama administration was winding down in January. Since the terms for more than half of the BOSC's members ran out in late April, the agency bureaucrats essentially went to the new EPA leadership with the old list of Obama administration appointees at the last minute and said, "Sign this." The new team appointed by Trump declined to do so. Scorned bureaucrats then leaked the decision to the media shaping the narrative as a Trumpian anti-science "firing" of brave truth-tellers. The Washington Post and the New York Times duly reported just that story. But is it so? "We're not going to rubber-stamp the last administration's appointees. Instead, they should participate in the same open competitive process as the rest of the applicant pool," EPA spokesperson J.P. Freire told the Post. "This approach is what was always intended for the board, and we're making a clean break with the last administration's approach." Rifling through the Federal Advisory Committee Act database, I find that the terms of 12 members of the BOSC officially expired on April 27, 2017. Another ended in March. Composed of outside researchers, the 18-member BOSC is supposed to provide objective and independent counsel to the agency's Office of Research and Development (ORD). The committee aids the ORD on research and development with the aim of identifying, understanding, and solving current and future environmental problems; by reviewing ORD's technical support to EPA's program and regional offices; by providing leadership in assisting ORD in identifying emerging environmental issues; and by helping to advance the science and technology of risk assessment and risk management. BOSC members are must be nationally recognized experts in science or engineering. The board should be balanced in disciplines, diversity, and geographic distribution area and include representatives from academia, government, industry, environmental consulting firms, and environmental associations. Last May, the agency issued a BOSC Membership Balance Plan that among other things noted that approximately 8 months prior to expiration of committee members' terms the DFO [designated federal officer] starts devising an outreach plan for new committeee members. Among other things, the DFO is supposed to solicit candidate names through a Federal Register notice and from individuals who are actively engaged in interests relating to environmental scientific and technical fields, human health care professions, academia, industry, public and private research institutes and organizations, and other relevant interest areas. The DFO reviews the pool of nominees screening out lobbyists and checking for conflicts of interest while seeking a balance of points of view. As the Membership Balance Plan notes the list of nominees is reviewed by "different levels of EPA managers" before formal letters of invitation are sent out. The Plan n[...]



Climate Change, Scientism, and the Politics of Certitude

Mon, 01 May 2017 12:30:00 -0400

The balance of the scientific evidence supports the claim that man-made climate change is happening. That being said, there are many uncertainties with regard to how fast the climate might warm over the course of this century, how much it might warm, how fast sea level will rise, and so forth. Climate scientists try to get a handle on the trajectory of climate change using computer climate models. When compared to observational temperature trends, the models' outputs have been somewhat less than robust. University of Alabama at Huntsville climatologist John Christy, who is a long-time skeptic of projections of future catastrophic warming, finds that computer model temperature increases average about 3 times greater than the actual temperature trends. A January 2017 paper in the Journal of Climate by researchers who unquestionably represent mainstream climate science corrected for satellite data trends and the inclusion of stratospheric cooling and also found that the models are warming 1.7 times faster than the observational temperatures. In his column "Climate of Complete Certainty," New York Times opinion writer Bret Stephens sought to account for the skepticism of high percentage of Americans toward the dire warnings from environmentalists about impending catastrophic climate change. Stephens accepts that man-made warming is real; however, he observes that much else is still a matter of probabilities. From his column: That's especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn't to deny science. It's to acknowledge it honestly.... Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one's moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts. None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know—as all environmentalists should—that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power. As it happens, hundreds of thousands of climate activists this past weekend participated in the Peoples Climate March in Washington, D.C., along with subsidiary marches in 300 other cities. It is evident that many progressive marchers would eschew Stephens' warning against marrying uncertain science to political power and are entirely certain that climate change requires the complete transformation of the U.S. economy and society along more communitarian lines. It is not too much to say that environmentalists' apocalyptic climate rhetoric helped elect our current president. The New York Post is reporting the nasty progressive backlash against Stephens who aim to get him fired from the Times. For more background on the human wreckage of scientific errors made by political environmentalists see my book, The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the 21st Century. I also reprise failed predictions of impending environmental catastrophe from the first Earth Day in 1970.[...]



Where Science - And Sexuality - Goes To Die: Bill Nye's Netflix Show

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 19:11:00 -0400

A few days ago, Netflix dropped its series Bill Nye Saves the World in which the eponymous host "explores various problems and misconceptions from a scientific point of view."

Well, at least when he isn't hosting godawful video bits like this one featuring Rachel Bloom, one of the creators and stars of the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Titled "My Sex Junk," I first saw this in my Twitter feed yesterday, where any number of people pointed out that whatever your feelings about the topics under discussion, this video pretty much makes all of humanity want to cringe and die.

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Wllc5gSc-N8" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">

There is so much wrong here, it's almost painful. But we should ask, who is the possible audience for this sort of thing? It seems both smug and off-putting in equal measures, so much so I can't imagine anyone wanting to be identified with it under any circumstances. But that only means I am not the target audience, I suppose.

Related: That time Bill Nye said he was open to jail time for climate change skeptics.




March for Science: R&D Funding Is Not Falling - It's at an All Time High

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 15:35:00 -0400

On Saturday I wandered down to the National Mall to hang out with the folks who were participating in the March for Science. Despite the rain, the crowd was mostly in a celebratory and not too overtly partisan mood. The event's kick-off on the grounds of the Washington Monument was a series of short speeches punctuated by musical interludes. For instance, the crowd was amused by Thomas Dolby performing his hit "She Blinded Me With Science." Several of the speakers mentioned their worries about proposed cuts in federal R&D funding, and a couple even suggested that R&D funding had been falling for decades. "Federal support has been dropping since the 1960s," declared Lydia Villa-Komaroff, former CEO of a cell biology company called Cytonome and a co-chair of the March to NBC News. Villa-Komaroff's claim is at best misleading. It is true that the percentage of the federal budget devoted to R&D has been falling since the space race with Soviet Union abated, but the amounts in real dollars that the Feds have spent on R&D have risen more or less steadily over the past four decades. In November 2016, the National Science Foundation reported that U.S. R&D spending is at an all time high of $499 billion in 2015. As the American Institute of Physics noted, "Businesses funded $355 billion, or 69 percent, continuing a long-term trend of private enterprise financing an increasingly large majority of R&D nationwide. The federal government, the second-largest funder of U.S. R&D, sponsored an estimated $113 billion, or 23 percent of the total." "Those private sector efforts are now the dominant form of research activity in the United States, with business spending $3 on research for every $1 invested by the U.S. government. In the 1960s the federal government outspent industry by a two-to-one margin, but the balance tipped in 1980," noted Science in its report on the NSF's R&D funding study. Of course, many of the Marchers for Science are concerned that President Trump's "skinny budget" that aims to cut federal R&D funding to support his military buildup might actually happen. This seems unlikely. That being said, I share below some of the signs at the March for Science rally that I rather liked. [...]



Scientists’ March on Washington

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 13:30:00 -0400

In the flush of excitement after the post-inaugural Women's March on Washington, someone in a Reddit conversation suggested, "There needs to be a Scientists' March on Washington." Sensing that a march on Washington might sound too aggressively partisan, the organizers have now renamed the event the March for Science. That march will take place tomorrow, on Earth Day, which the coordinators somehow figured would be the perfect nonpartisan date on which to muster tens of thousands of scientists and their comrades on the National Mall. "We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely," warns the march's mission statement. "Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford. We must stand together and support science." From whom do the marchers hope to defend science? Certainly not the American public: Most Americans are fairly strong supporters of the scientific enterprise. An October 2016 Pew Research Center poll reported, "Three-quarters of Americans (76%) have either a great deal (21%) or a fair amount of confidence (55%) in scientists, generally, to act in the public interest." The General Social Survey notes that public confidence in scientists stands out among the most stable of about 13 institutions rated in the GSS survey since the mid-1970s. (For what it's worth, the GSS reports only 8 percent of the public say that they have a great deal of confidence in the press, but at least that's higher than the 6 percent who say the same about Congress.) The mission statement also declares, "The application of science to policy is not a partisan issue. Anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they harm everyone—without exception." I thoroughly endorse that sentiment. But why didn't the scientific community march when the Obama administration blocked over-the-counter access to emergency contraception to women under age 17? Or dawdled for years over the approval of genetically enhanced salmon? Or tried to kill off the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility? Or halted the development of direct-to-consumer genetic testing? One problem is that many of the marchers apparently believe that scientific evidence necessarily implies the adoption of certain policies. This ignores the always salient issue of trade-offs. For example, acknowledging that man-made global warming could become a significant problem does not mean that the only "scientific" policy response must be the immediate deployment of the current versions of solar and wind power. The mission statement proclaims that the marchers "unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest." Setting aside the fact that the march was conceived in the immediate wake of the decidedly partisan and specifically anti-Trump Women's March on Washington, how credible are these claims to non-partisanship? As it happens, I received an email on Thursday from the publicist for Shaughnessy Naughton, who is a chemist, a cancer researcher, and the founder of the activist group 314 Action. Naughton's group is one of the March's 170 partner organizations. 314 Action's political action committee is recruiting scientists, engineers, and other technologists to run for political office, and it plans to provide them with the "resources they need to become viable, credible, Democratic candidates." The publicist informed me that Naughton is "available to discuss this weekend's March for Science in Washington, D.C., which will assemble scientists from across the country to rally against the Trump 'war on science.'" The headline earlier this week in the reliably left-wing Guardian makes no bones about the intent of the marchers: "Science strikes back: anti-Trump march set to draw thousands to Washington." The 170 partner organizations[...]



Scientists' March on Washington: New at Reason

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 13:30:00 -0400

(image) In the flush of excitement after the post-inaugural Women's March on Washington, someone in a Reddit conversation suggested, "There needs to be a Scientists' March on Washington." Sensing that a march on Washington might sound too aggressively partisan, the organizers have now renamed the event the March for Science. That march will take place tomorrow, on Earth Day, which the coordinators somehow figured would be the perfect nonpartisan date on which to muster tens of thousands of scientists and their comrades on the National Mall.

The event's mission statement proclaims that the marchers "unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest." Setting aside the fact that the march was conceived in the immediate wake of the decidedly partisan and specifically anti-Trump Women's March on Washington, how credible are these claims to non-partisanship?




Is the Cure for Aging Just Around the Corner?

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 13:30:00 -0400

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," quipped Benjamin Franklin. For now both remain inevitable, but two exciting new studies suggest that the grim reaper might be put off by novel treatments that can slow and even reverse aging. Peter de Keizer, a molecular geneticist at Erasmus University, reports in the journal Cell that he and his colleagues have developed a technique that kills off senescent cells. Our bodies have two ways of preventing damaged cells from becoming cancerous: kill them off, or cause them to cease replication and thus become senescent. Senescent cells accumulate as we grow older, secreting inflammatory substances that harm neighboring cells and contribute to many age-related diseases, including atherosclerorsis and diabetes. De Keizer and his colleagues have developed a treatment in mice that selectively kills senescent cells while leaving healthy normal cells alone. They discovered that old or damaged cells become senescent rather than die when the FOXO4 protein binds to the tumor suppressor gene p53. They have designed another protein that interferes with the ability of FOXO4 to halt p53 from causing cells to die. De Keizer's team administered the new protein to both fast-aging and normally aged mice. The treatment worked as they had hoped, jumpstarting the ability of p53 to make senescent cells commit suicide. Eliminating senescent cells restored stamina, fur density, and kidney function in both strains of mice. The researchers report that they are continuing to study the rodents to see if the treatment extends their lifespans. They plan to try the treatment to stop brain cancer in human beings, but the ultimate goal is to treat aging as a disease. "Maybe when you get to 65 you'll go every five years for your anti-senescence shot in the clinic. You'll go for your rejuvenation shot," de Keizer told the Tech Times. In the same week, another group of Harvard researchers led by molecular biologist David Sinclair reported in Science about experiments in mice that thwart DNA damage associated with aging and exposure to radiation. As we age, our cells lose their ability to repair the damage to the DNA that makes up our genes. The repair process is orchestrated by the SIRT1 and PARP1 proteins. Both proteins consume the ubiquitous coenzyme nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) to operate. As we grow older, the amount of NAD in our cells declines, thus allowing another protein, DBC1, to inhibit the DNA repair activity of both SIRT1 and PARP1. In their new research, the scientists fed the NAD precursor nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) to mice that were equivalent in age to an 80-year-old person. They also gave it to mice whose DNA had been damaged by radiation. The compound boosted NAD back to youthful levels and restored their ability to repair the DNA damage in both the old and irradiated cells. Sinclair said, "The cells of the old mice were indistinguishable from the young mice, after just one week of treatment." In addition, dosing astronauts traveling to Mars with NMN could counteract the damage that radiation in deep space would cause them. In an earlier experiment by Sinclair and his associates, the muscles of two-year-old mice fed NMN resembled those of six-month-old mice with respect to insulin resistance, inflammation, muscle wasting, and other important markers. Sinclair says that his group plans to launch human NMN trials in the next six months. Other groups have already started and completed safety trials of other NAD precursors in human beings. Leonard Guarente, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Glenn Laboratory for the Science of Aging, reported the results in December of a clinical trial involving 120 people who took the NAD precursor nicotinimide riboside (NR). The trial found that subjects experienced no serious adverse events. The participants ranged in age from 60 to [...]



Rejuvenation By Killing Off Senescent Cells and by Boosting DNA Repair: New at Reason

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 13:30:00 -0400

(image) "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," quipped Benjamin Franklin. For now both remain inevitable, but two exciting new studies suggest that the grim reaper might be put off by novel treatments that can slow and even reverse aging.

Senescent cells accumulate as we grow older, secreting inflammatory substances that harm neighboring cells and contribute to many age-related diseases, including atherosclerorsis and diabetes. Researchers associated with Erasmus University report that they have developed a compound that selectively kills off senescent cells while leaving healthy ones alone. Eliminating senescent cells restored stamina, fur density, and kidney function in aged mice. The researchers report that they are continuing to study the rodents to see if the treatment extends their lifespans. "Maybe when you get to 65 you'll go every five years for your anti-senescence shot in the clinic. You'll go for your rejuvenation shot," speculated one researcher.

As we age, our cells lose their ability to repair the damage to the DNA that makes up our genes. Another team of researchers associated with Harvard University are reporting experiments that increase levels of a compound that restores DNA repair activity back to youthful levels.




6 Cool Innovations That Are Making the World a Better Place, Vol. 2

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 16:45:00 -0400

Reason readers already know that smart people + free markets = innovations that can change the world. But just in case you needed a reminder (or a proof of the pudding for your more skeptical friends), below are six products we found at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the big technology and entrepreneurship confab that happened in Austin, Texas, this month, that are working hard to make life a little better. Each was a finalist for one of the conference's Interactive Innovation Awards, and a couple of them took home first-place prizes, too. 6. Molekule: Fighting Indoor Airpollution at a Molecular Level I am one of those poor souls who are allergic to anything and everything in the air. Dust. Dander. Smoke. Pollen. Carbon. Oxygen. I become a weezing, sniffling mess at the first sign of any of them. In desperation a few years ago I got myself an air purifier, but it didn't make much of a difference. Eventually the HEPA filter needed to be replaced, and I wasn't sure where to go to get a new one. Soon, rather than reducing the floating particle content in my apartment, it became just another object (ironically) collecting dust. And then I threw it in a dumpster. Enter Molekule, whose creators claim to have cracked the code on using nanotechnology, free radicals, and solar energy science (stick with me, I swear I'm not just blurting out buzzwords) in a process called Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO) to actually break down indoor air pollutants at a molecular level. And the device—a finalist among Health, Med & Biotech products—knows when it needs a new filter and will automatically order one for home delivery, at a flat annual subscription rate. Although I can't testify that it works as promised, I very much hope I'll have a chance to find out in the near future. 5. Pavegen V3: Human-Powered, Er, Power Pavegen has created a flooring system that absorbs the shock of pedestrians walking across it and, using tiny generators on the undersides of the triangular tiles, transforms that movement into electricity. In addition to being a true renewable source of energy, it would seem to hold a lot of promise for letting there be light (among other things) in remote locations without access to traditional power hookups. According to the Pavegen website, the "rotary motion" caused by a footfall "creates 2 to 4 joules of energy via electro-magnetic induction." The company's first permanent outdoor installation came to Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood (also, coincidentally, home to Reason's D.C. office) last fall, showing that the system can stand up to relatively harsh winter conditions. V3 was the Innovation Award winner in the Smart Cities category. 4. The ODIN: Do-It-Yourself Gene Editing Self-described "biohacker" Josiah Zayner wasn't content to get a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Chicago and do research for NASA. In 2016, he launched a crowdfunding effort to found The ODIN, which for $150 will sell you a DIY bacterial gene editing kit. That product, a nominee for the Health, Med & Biotech award, comes with all necessary components "to make precision genome edits in bacteria at home including Cas9, tracrRNA, crRNAm," plus a template so you can experiment on your own. "I believe that the only way that this works is if Science is democratized so everyone has access," Zayner wrote on Indiegogo. "Until now, no one has taken the time to develop protocols and methods and then be willing to provide all of this for a reasonable price that can be afforded without large institutional grants." 3. TunnelBear: Routing Around Internet Censorship One of the ways oppressive governments manage to keep a stranglehold on their citizens is by controlling the flow of information via spying, censorship, and propaganda dispersal. Fortunately, Virtual Private Network (VPN) services can shield a u[...]



Upset About Budget Cuts to the National Institutes of Health? Blame the National Institutes of Health

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 10:02:00 -0400

Scientists and fans of science are getting all worked up over a proposed 20 percent cut to the budget of the National Institutes of Health. If they're looking for someone to blame for those cuts, they can start by blaming the National Institutes of Health. Seriously. From funding experiments that gave cocaine to quails and rats, to studying the sex habits of hamsters and goldfish, there are few parts of the federal government that have made a better case for budget cut than the NIH. Adrienne LaFrance has a piece at The Atlantic that takes the hysteria over President Donald Trump's first budget proposal to new heights. The budget, which includes a cut of $6 billion to the NIH, has scientists bracing for "a lost generation in American science," according to LaFrance, who says scientists told her that the "consequences of such a dramatic reduction in public spending on science and medicine would be deadly." One of those scientists, Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells LaFrance that the proposed cuts "would bring American biomedical science to a halt and forever shut out a generation of young scientists." Please. Behind all the hysterics is one simple fact. Even if Trump's budget cuts are enacted, as proposed, by Congress (which they won't be), the NIH would be funded at the same level as it was in 2003. That's less than 15 years ago. It's hardly a return to the Dark Ages—heck, that's hardly a return to the pre-iPhone ages—or to the era when smallpox and polio were running rampant. If the generation of young scientists that went to school in the 1990s and early 2000s managed to survive and get funding for research without the NIH at its current levels, then surely the next generation will. Before going any further, though, an important note on Trump's budget. It's terrible. His proposed cuts are not a serious effort at reducing the size of the federal government, but rather a way to pay for a mostly useless wall on the border with Mexico and to feed the Pentagon more money ($52 billion more, to be exact), so the military can flush it down the toilet of endless wars, overpriced weapons systems, and who-knows-what-else because not even government auditors can figure out how the Department of Defense manages to waste so much taxpayer money. The terrible spending decisions in Trump's budget, though, do not make his proposed cuts any less legitimate, and few government agencies have made a better, stronger case for having their own budgets reduced. More than 80 percent of the NIH's annual budget is used to fund research grants, mostly for universities and post-grad students. While there is plenty of good research funded by the NIH, there's also no shortage of examples that make you wonder if they're secretly conducting a study on how many ridiculous, wasteful studies they can fund before Congress or the president cuts their budget. Perhaps the most infamous example of pure WTF research funded by the NIH is the $175,000 grant given to the University of Kentucky to study how cocaine affects the sex drives of Japanese quail. "It's hard to think of a more wasteful use of American taxpayers' money than to give cocaine to quail and studying their sexual habits," deadpanned then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) in highlighting the study in his 2011 report on wasteful government spending. There are plenty of other head-scratching examples, like the $509,000 grant used to study how meth-heads responded to text messages using "gay lingo." The NIH spent more than $2.8 million over four years funding a study to determine why "nearly three-quarters of adult lesbians overweight or obese," and why gay men generally are not. More than $600,000 from the NIH helped finance a study on the sex habits of hamsters, and another $3.6 million from [...]



DIY Biohacking Can Change The World, If the Government Allows It: New at Reason

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 13:45:00 -0400

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/9fMN80wkYvM" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Josiah Zayner is a scientist and entrepreneur who quit his government job in a NASA lab to start The Odin, a synthetic biology company run out of his garage. For $150, anyone can now purchase the cutting-edge "gene editing" tool CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) through The Odin's online shop. Zayner champions do-it-yourself "biohacking" as the future of science and often draws comparisons between his work and that of the computer scientists and hackers of the '80s and '90s who eventually become the titans of Silicon Valley. "I think [genetic engineering] is really going to become a consumer industry," says Zayner. "Consumers drive a lot of technological advancement." Biohackers like Zayner, much like their computer hacker forebears, prefer asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And so far, Zayner hasn't had to do either. But the launch of a new product that allows users to engineer fluorescent yeast by inserting a gene from a bio-luminescent jellyfish drew the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after officials learned that breweries were using the product to create glowing beer. They called up Zayner to discuss potential regulatory pitfalls. Officials on the call, which Zayner recorded and posted on his YouTube channel, sound hesitant to make any hard-and-fast declarations about Zayner's work, but they do clearly express the opinion that the yeast modification constitutes a "food color additive," which is subject to pre-market approval by the agency. They instruct him that he should change the language on his website so that nobody construes the yeast as a food product. Zayner then asks them what will happen if he doesn't change anything, to which one of the officials replies, "Well, there's a number of things that we could do, from a warning letter...to, where, if it got to the point where we would, you know, seize material." They also tell him to keep track of who is buying the yeast kit and suggest that he could face "trouble" if breweries continue to use the product, even if he changes the marketing language. "This is who I'm dealing with, a bunch of bullies," says Zayner. "Bullying people into doing what they want, not for scientific reasons, not for the betterment of the public...just because." Zayner is not the only one in the genetics industry burdened with regulatory uncertainty. Another such case is that of Antony Evans at TAXA, a San Francisco-based synthetic biology company that aims to engineer plants to supplement or replace common household items. They currently have a glowing plant in development, which Evans envisions as an alternative to nighttime lighting, and fragrant moss that could act as an organic air freshener. He's had products jammed up by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the past. "If you're an entrepreneur creating a regulated article, the cost to getting that product to market is extremely high," says Evans. "That's why a lot of entrepreneurs are starting in the edges." Evans believes that it's the pre-market approval process that stymies innovation among small, lean startups, which cannot afford to wait years and spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to take a product to market. The FDA does allow products that only contain substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) to go straight to market, but Zayner and Evans both believe the list of GRAS substances is far too limited and the process for approval needlessly burdensome and time-consuming. "We have no idea how much we are inhibiting [innovation], but we just know that we are because it's almost impossible to launch a plant GMO company." Watch the ful[...]



DIY Biohacking Can Change The World, If the Government Allows It

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 12:00:00 -0400

Josiah Zayner is a scientist and entrepreneur who quit his government job in a NASA lab to start The Odin, a synthetic biology company run out of his garage. For $150, anyone can now purchase the cutting-edge "gene editing" tool CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) through The Odin's online shop. Zayner champions do-it-yourself "biohacking" as the future of science and often draws comparisons between his work and that of the computer scientists and hackers of the '80s and '90s who eventually become the titans of Silicon Valley. "I think [genetic engineering] is really going to become a consumer industry," says Zayner. "Consumers drive a lot of technological advancement." Biohackers like Zayner, much like their computer hacker forebears, prefer asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And so far, Zayner hasn't had to do either. But the launch of a new product that allows users to engineer fluorescent yeast by inserting a gene from a bio-luminescent jellyfish drew the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after officials learned that breweries were using the product to create glowing beer. They called up Zayner to discuss potential regulatory pitfalls. Officials on the call, which Zayner recorded and posted on his YouTube channel, sound hesitant to make any hard-and-fast declarations about Zayner's work, but they do clearly express the opinion that the yeast modification constitutes a "food color additive," which is subject to pre-market approval by the agency. They instruct him that he should change the language on his website so that nobody construes the yeast as a food product. Zayner then asks them what will happen if he doesn't change anything, to which one of the officials replies, "Well, there's a number of things that we could do, from a warning letter...to, where, if it got to the point where we would, you know, seize material." They also tell him to keep track of who is buying the yeast kit and suggest that he could face "trouble" if breweries continue to use the product, even if he changes the marketing language. "This is who I'm dealing with, a bunch of bullies," says Zayner. "Bullying people into doing what they want, not for scientific reasons, not for the betterment of the public...just because." Zayner is not the only one in the genetics industry burdened with regulatory uncertainty. Another such case is that of Antony Evans at TAXA, a San Francisco-based synthetic biology company that aims to engineer plants to supplement or replace common household items. They currently have a glowing plant in development, which Evans envisions as an alternative to nighttime lighting, and fragrant moss that could act as an organic air freshener. He's had products jammed up by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the past. "If you're an entrepreneur creating a regulated article, the cost to getting that product to market is extremely high," says Evans. "That's why a lot of entrepreneurs are starting in the edges." Evans believes that it's the pre-market approval process that stymies innovation among small, lean startups, which cannot afford to wait years and spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to take a product to market. The FDA does allow products that only contain substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) to go straight to market, but Zayner and Evans both believe the list of GRAS substances is far too limited and the process for approval needlessly burdensome and time-consuming. "We have no idea how much we are inhibiting [innovation], but we just know that we are because it's almost impossible to launch a plant GMO company." Watch the full video above. Produced by Zach Weissmueller by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Alex Manning and Weissmue[...]



Jeff Sessions Can't Handle the Truth About Marijuana

Wed, 01 Mar 2017 07:00:00 -0500

Last week White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that marijuana legalization contributes to opioid abuse. "When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country," he said, "the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people" by allowing recreational use of marijuana. As critics such as NORML's Paul Armentano and Washington Post drug policy blogger Christopher Ingraham pointed out, Spicer had things backward: The evidence suggests that loosening marijuana prohibition results in less consumption of opioids. No way, says Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seems to be planning a crackdown on state-licensed marijuana businesses. During a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General yesterday, Sessions mocked the notion that "marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse": Give me a break. This is the kind of argument that has been made out there. It's just almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that's true. Maybe science will prove I'm wrong. But at this point in time, you and I have a responsibility to use our best judgment, that which we've learned over a period of years, and speak truth as best we can. While the evidence that marijuana works as a treatment for opioid abuse is inconclusive, several studies have found an association between medical marijuana laws and reductions in opioid prescriptions, opioid-related deaths, and fatally injured drivers testing positive for opioids. These results make sense to the extent that marijuana can be substituted for narcotics as a way of relieving physical or emotional pain, a switch than can be expected to reduce serious side effects because marijuana is safer. Although Sessions claims he is open to refutation by science, he clearly has not bothered to look at the research. Such incuriosity is consistent with the former Alabama senator's history as a diehard drug warrior who knows lots of things that aren't so. Consider his outrage a few years ago when President Obama publicly conceded that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. Although there is plenty of evidence to support that conclusion, it did not jibe with Sessions' anti-pot prejudices, so he could not accept it: I have to tell you, I'm heartbroken to see what the president said just a few days ago. It's stunning to me. I find it beyond comprehension….This is just difficult for me to conceive how the president of the United States could make such a statement as that....Did the president conduct any medical or scientific survey before he waltzed into The New Yorker and opined contrary to the positions of attorneys general and presidents universally prior to that? Sessions tried to rebut Obama's statement about the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol by declaring that "Lady Gaga says she's addicted to [marijuana] and it is not harmless." Putting aside the merits of treating Lady Gaga as an expert on the effects of marijuana, or of extrapolating from this sample of one to the experiences of cannabis consumers generally, Sessions did not seem to understand that Substance A can be less dangerous than Substance B without being harmless. To say that marijuana is less hazardous than alcohol by several important measures (including impairment of driving ability, the risk of a fatal overdose, and the long-term damage caused by heavy use) is not the same as saying that marijuana is 100 percent safe. Either Sessions does not grasp that basic point, or he is so determined to justify marijuana prohibition that he deliberately obscures it. Is this what he means by "speak[ing] truth as best we can"? Sessions claims supporters of legalization are "desperate" to "defend the harmles[...]



Eat More Peppers, Live Longer; Eat More Grilled Meat, Die Sooner

Wed, 25 Jan 2017 14:45:00 -0500

(image) I just happened to come across two newspaper stories this week about the two new nutritional epidemiological studies purporting to find a health correlation between the consumption of two foods: hot peppers and grilled meats. The Washington Post story's headline declared, "Barbecued and smoked meat tied to risk of death from breast cancer." The New York Times article was titled, "Eat Peppers, Live Longer?"

According to the Post, "A higher intake of barbecued, smoked or grilled meat before diagnosis was also associated with 23 percent higher odds of death from all causes, the study found. Of the three cooking options, smoking may be the worst. Routinely eating smoked beef, lamb and pork was tied to a 17 percent greater risk of death from all causes...." The Times reported, "After controlling for age, sex, smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and other characteristics, they found that those who reported eating hot peppers had a 13 percent reduced risk for dying early."

What interested me was the difference in the way that the findings were interpreted with regard to how readers might consider changing their diets. In the Reuters story on which the Post article was based, a researcher argues that "the findings suggest women should pay attention to how they cook their food to minimize their exposure to carcinogenic chemicals." In other words, eating less grilled meat might boost your chances of living longer by 23 percent over those who continue to indulge themselves with tasty charred steaks, burgers, and sausages.

On the other hand, when asked if people seeking to live longer should eat more hot peppers, the co-author on that study observed, "The evidence isn't strong enough to make me change my diet." What? Evidently, a 13 percent reduced risk of early mortality is not enough to advise people to chomp on more habaneros.

Here's my point: I suspect that most readers will find the grilled meat story more alarming than the hot pepper one even though the risks of death posed by the nutritional habits studied in each are roughly equivalent. Why? The grilled meat story is framed as a loss whereas the hot pepper one is cast as a gain. Behavioral psychologists have long found that people fear losses more than they anticipate gains.

In any case, the hot pepper guy is entirely right: Don't change your diet based on iffy observational studies like these. With regard to pepper and barbecued meats: I say eat and enjoy both, preferably together.




Is President Trump a 'Climate Menace'?

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:30:00 -0500

"Donald Trump is a climate menace, no doubt about it," asserts Greenpeace U.K. spokesperson John Sauven. "President-elect Donald Trump threatens our environment and we vow to fight him every step of the way," declares Kate Colwell from Friends of the Earth. The Union of Concerned Scientists Research Director Gretchen Goldman warns, "It is hard to imagine a Trump administration where science won't be politicized." It is the case that in a 2014 tweet Trump notoriously asked, "Is our country still spending money on the GLOBAL WARMING HOAX?" In 2012, Trump tweeted that the concept of global warming had been created by the Chinese to make American manufacturing noncompetitive. During the presidential campaign, he vowed that he would "cancel" the Paris Agreement on climate change. Being his usual consistently inconsistent self, Trump claimed during a Fox News interview last year that the Chinese tweet was a "joke," and he told The New York Times after the election that he would keep an "open mind" about the Paris Agreement. Yet none of Trump's cabinet picks seem to agree that man-made climate change is hoax. In the hearings for various cabinet nominees, Democrats have sought valiantly to unmask them as "climate change deniers." So far, not one has questioned the scientific reality of man-made global warming. On the other hand, they have tended not to be as alarmed as their interlocutors, and/or have failed to endorse the climate policies that Democrats prefer. Take Scott Pruitt. The Oklahoma attorney-general, nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency, stated flatly: "I do not believe that climate change is a hoax." He added, "Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was particularly annoyed that Pruitt pointed to uncertainties about the future course of warming. But those uncertainties are real. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that warming will continue unless GHG emissions are curbed, but it also notes that "the projected size of those changes cannot be precisely predicted." IPCC further observed that "some underlying physical processes are not yet completely understood, making them difficult to model." Pruitt is one of the 27 state attorneys-general that are challenging the legality of President Obama's Clean Power Plan (CPP), which would require electric utilities to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide by 30 percent below their 2005 levels by 2030. The Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the CPP last February, which indicates that Pruitt and his fellow attorneys-general have substantial legal grounds to challenge that EPA regulation. In November, the eco-modernist think tank the Breakthrough Institute released a study that suggested that the U.S. could well speed up its GHG reduction trends if the CPP was abandoned. Other nominees asked about their views on climate change include former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson (nominated to run the State Department), Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (Interior Department); Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (Justice Department); businessman Wilbur Ross (Commerce Department); and former Texas governor Rick Perry (Energy Department). Tillerson testified, "I came to the decision a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist and the consequences could be serious enough that it warrants action." Zinke similarly declared that he does not believe climate change is "hoax." Sessions offered, "I don't deny that we have global war[...]