Sunday, April 23, 2017

The 2017 March for Science

People gathered all over the world yesterday in support of science.

In the U.S. at least, their motivations were mixed. In the U.S., the main impetus was Donald Trump’s election and the subsequent official denial of human-caused, or anthropogenic, climate change, in the face of compelling evidence that we are changing the global environment in ways that will cause dramatic and severe problems in the not too distant future. The scale and severity of the impact of our activities could be and likely will be cataclysmic and may already be irreversible. Government’s denial of the body of evidence and the opinions of the majority of scientists studying the matter was the catalyst for the marches. The Trump administration seems decidedly opposed to limits on industry’s freedom to pollute, seems opposed to preserving undeveloped lands, and seems altogether made up of ignorant self-centered greedy bigots. There is plenty to be worried about.

But at least some of the marchers were walking for other reasons. Some of them are motivated by money. Here’s a nice chart from Science.

In broad terms, U.S. funding for science in order of the amounts in billion of dollars (2016) looks like this: NIH-$32, NASA-$19, NSF-$7, NOAA-$6, DOD/DARPA-$5, FDA-$6.

Much of that money finds its way to universities. It keeps a university and its labs up and running. It pays salaries and buys equipment. The flow of tax dollars from the NIH and the NSF has become the life-blood of the large universities; it has led to a system that has turned its back on science. The system is controlled by those whose livelihoods are dependent on the system; conflicts of interest and bias are inevitable and widespread.

Science is a very large umbrella. In common usage, it includes a wide array of activities, not all of which are based on the classic scientific method, but they do have things in common. One of those things is the belief that decisions and research directions ought to be based on what is believed to be likely, or better yet, has been proven. A decision driven by personal interests and desires isn’t science.

When decisions are made by scientists about their and their colleague’s work that seem to ignore a preponderance of evidence, it seems reasonable to infer that something has displaced the dispassionate consideration of evidence, which is at the heart of science. My interpretation of the dismissal of evidence, in the area of science I know best, is that the main goal of these scientists and their universities is securing funding.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that scientists are constrained by the status quo in their field of study. It is apparently almost impossible for a scientist to think outside the box. They spend their time trying to make new data fit into their shared beliefs, even when it can’t actually be squeezed into the box, or paradigm in Kuhn’s terms. They sometimes literally can’t see what is directly in front of them. Kuhn points to examples like Galileo’s observations of the motion of a pendulum which are not seen today. Galileo saw the world though a different lens than do today’s observers.

Kuhn argues convincingly that it takes a crises before scientists are able to begin operating under a new paradigm. A crises usually arises slowly as a result of the current paradigm being increasingly unable to explain observable data and unable to offer ideas that lead to successful new tools for solving the problems being encountered. At some point the working model is supplanted with a new view of the world that does a better job of explanation. That’s the way science has generally progressed over the years. But that was before money got mixed into the pot. Money has served to retard notice of a crisis and to forestall the development of new paradigms.

In years past, when a scientist’s work was judged on its content and consequences, he or she was forced to try something new, to abandon failed methods, and to rethink problems if what they were doing wasn’t working. But not anymore. Today, the work conducted by a scientist working in a university NIH-funded lab doing basic biomedical research is judged solely on their ability to attract funding and the frequency of their publications.

You might imagine that those making decisions about what projects to fund would look at a scientist’s success at generating information that led to some clinical benefit, but that’s not so. The NIH study sections that make the determinations are themselves staffed by others receiving NIH grants for projects that also have been funded without an evaluation of clinical benefit.

Kuhn’s ideas were the result of having to teach a class on the history of science; he was particularly focused on the physical sciences, and he was writing in the early 1960s. If he had seen into the future, he might have written about the consequences of massive financial support for scientists working in a system that does not demand success. Revolutions are unlikely, progress stalls.

The dominant paradigm in taxpayer-sponsored biomedical science today is that discoveries in mouse biology will lead to human benefit down the road, at some later date. To the degree that this isn’t true, then the degree to which mouse-based research continues to be supported by NIH is a rough measure of how off course science can go when influenced by a funding system that dispenses money to scientists who will certainly publish only data of no consequence and of no use to medical practitioners or patients. Less than 30% of NIH grant dollars go to clinical research -- research using humans. That’s telling. (Rubio, Doris McGartland, Ellie E. Schoenbaum, Linda S. Lee, David E. Schteingart, Paul R. Marantz, Karl E. Anderson, Lauren Dewey Platt, Adriana Baez, and Karin Esposito. "Defining translational research: implications for training." Academic medicine: journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges 85, no. 3 (2010): 470.)

When I say that the mouse model is the dominant paradigm I am using a bit of shorthand. More precisely, it is animal models generally, but the gigantically overwhelming number of animals used in research are mice. The failure and the reasons for the failure of the animal model paradigm has been written about in a scholarly way for at least 30 years, and the evidence continues to amass. For instance:

“... the limitations of preclinical tools such as inadequate cancer-cell-line and mouse models make it difficult for even the best scientists working in optimal conditions to make a discovery that will ultimately have an impact in the clinic.” Begley, C. Glenn, and Lee M. Ellis. "Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research." Nature 483, no. 7391 (2012): 531-533.

That article has been cited 1,160 times, which means it has been seen by lots of people in the biosciences, but 5 years later, and many similar papers preceding it and following it over the years pointing to the same phenomena, NIH still has at its helm, a mouse vivisector. I suspect that mouse-based research continues to lead the pack in funding and in the number of projects funded.

So, back to the March for Science: in Madison, vivisectors were key-note speakers, as they were at the few other marches I took the time to look at. The animal-model paradigm is a bust; the suffering experienced by the animals is beyond comprehension. And yet, on it goes.

Science has demonstrated beyond any doubt, that animals of numerous other species are emotional, thinking, complex beings. That’s clear. It is a statement based on a large and fast-growing body of verifiable enlightening evidence. And yet.

And yet, the geologists, the chemists, the physicists, the climatologists, the archeologists, the limnologists, the paleontologists say nothing. And yet, federal agencies continue to actively promote the use of animals in extraordinarily cruel projects that have no hope of helping anyone.

Climate scientists have a responsibility as scientists to speak out when they see colleagues doing things in the name of science that are obviously cruel. They have an obligation to try and find out what is being dome to animals in the name of science.

Claims of scientific expertise carry with them responsibilities not borne by non-scientists. One of those, it seems to me, particularly in light the unprecedented call from the scientific community for all people everywhere to stand up in support of Science!, is that they take notice of the work of those they pull to their bosom and take definite steps to stop any and all inhumane practices.

I didn’t march with them. The last thing I needed was to hear primate vivisector and keynote speaker Richard Davidson talking about how Buddhist meditation makes people more compassionate.

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