Sunday, January 24, 2010

Policing Science Policy

I haven't been extremely generous in my estimation of how science has fared under our current government - I'm not a big fan of Gary Goodyear's take on evolution, his lack of research experience, or Harper's prioritization of science funding in the budget.

It was nice to feel supported in these opinions by an editorial in Nature last week, blasting the Conservative treatment of science from a policy perspective. Science sits in the portfolio of the Minister of State - Science and Technology, a junior cabinet position that reports to the Minister of Industry. The only contact the Prime Minister had with science was a National Science Advisor, a position he abolished two years ago.

The editorial calls for the establishment of a clear and progressive science policy, and I couldn't agree more. There are a number of reasons this hasn't happened yet. One of them is that Harper doesn't seem to care much about science, whether it's the application of basic health research findings into clinical practice or the models of environmental impact of the oil sands projects.

But I think that we, and by that I mean scientists, fail to give him reason to care. One of the things that the article mentions is the lack of a national organization for science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science predates Canada itself by almost 20 years; their publication, "Science," is one of the most respected journals in the world. Because of our Commonwealth status, British organizations like the Royal Society served this role early in our history. As a result, 142 (and a half) years after Confederation, we still have no equivalent unifying body in Canada.

Without any semblance of organization, the scientific community cannot even begin to think about influencing policy. We do not provide a national organization independent of government and funding agencies that takes official stances or even makes commentary on policy decisions. We don't have a publication in which we provide news about science and science policy or publish important research.

Science in Canada lacks organization, leadership, and vision. In this day and age, things like geography and multilingualism are no excuses. Until we establish a body representing the Canadian scientific community, we are naive to think that science will impact the way our government to behaves without a venue to provide recommendations on how to solve important scientific problems like we have at the Chalk River reactor.

It's long past time we caught up to the Americans - and virtually every other country in the world - in this respect. We are a country with a very strong research program, thousands of bright scientists at hundreds of institutes from coast to coast; we have internationally renowned universities and respected figures in every field of study under the sun. Our scientists publish in top-quality journals, win Nobel Prizes, and are world leaders in their spheres. They save lives, improve our environments, and change the way we will live in the future.

Without an organization to serve as a mouthpiece for Canadian scientists, we can expect our science policy to be rudderless and ineffective. While we have important things to say, it's impossible for a government to listen to scientists when we're not even speaking.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pharma shrinking, Proroguing the inevitable

For some reason, the Montreal Gazette has a piece from the Windsor Star on the website this morning, and it freaks me out. The headline runs: "Workforce expert predicts future jobs." Which is a little like a meteorologist predicting that the future will have weather.

Apparently she's been waiting for a long time for appointments in offices that contain 5-year-old copies of The Economist; arguing that economic growth will depend on local people training and upgrading their skills. "You can't deny the importance of the knowledge economy," she is quoted as saying. The article also says she offers the pharmaceutical industry as a growth area for job seekers.

Now we'll leave alone the fact that we have more people with university degrees than our economy knows what to do with, and just point out that last year alone, Pfizer cut 19 500 jobs. This is the 2nd time in three years they've topped the pharma charts; in 2007 they cut another 10 000 jobs. This past year, Merck cut another 16 000 jobs; Johnson & Johnson slashed almost 9 000; and AstraZeneca lost about 7 500. Between the top 6 job cuts in the industry, over 63 000 jobs went to the big market in the sky.

The reason for this is that the pharmaceutical industry is scrambling to make money right now. There are no blockbuster drugs waiting for approval from the FDA, no huge breakthroughs that promise huge profits. Without the ability to provide any goods, big pharma is reduced to making money in the way that corporations usually do it: mergers, acquisitions and cuts. This is bad news for the workers, none of whom have the advantageous situation of, say, a GM employee.

All that to say that big pharma is not a growth industry in real terms, and anything decent in "little" pharma is going to get its intellectual property snapped up by one of the big boys, leaving little but empty infrastructure and unemployment in its wake. Not what I would describe as a strong market.

* * *

A couple of words on prorogation.

Proroguing Parliament is nothing new. Everyone has done it, from Sir John A to Jean Chretien. Normally, however, Parliament is prorogued to start a holiday break or to end a session. Harper's prorogations have been special, certainly in the modern Parliament (last 30-40 years).

Last time, Harper prorogued Parliament because he was facing a vote of confidence that he thought he might lose, and that a coalition of opposition parties might form a government. So he asked the Governor-General if he could buy some time while he talked with various parties long enough to let the coalition run its natural course: failure. This was annoying, but it was smart politics.

This time, however, the reasons for prorogation are less clear. There is a scandal before the government regarding Afghan detainees, the Olympic Games in February, and another vote of confidence coming in March (the budget). However, these issues don't seem overwhelming - not while important bills are waiting before the House (the anti-crime legislation that is an integral part of the Conservative platform, for example).

This prorogation comes during a scheduled break from Parliament. This is pretty much unheard of, and extends the break from 39 days to 76 days. It is disingenuous for Harper to say that this is a routine procedure: the only other prorogation that lasted this long since 1968 (as early as I checked) was Chretien's 82-day prorogation in 2003-2004; executed mostly to avoid Sheila Fraser's report on the Sponsorship Scandal and inquiries into military conduct in Somalia. For the Conservatives to criticize Chretien's move while defending Harper is outright hypocrisy.

Which shouldn't surprise me, I suppose. What does surprise me is that something was worth wasting political capital on prorogation. What's waiting in the wings when Parliament resumes in March?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pfizer on CIHR board no conflict of interest

Poor Leona Aglukkaq is getting ripped apart in the news these days for appointing Bernard Prigent, vice-president and medical director of Pfizer Canada, to the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The CIHR is the major funding organization for life science research in Canada, distributing some $800 million of taxpayers' money to various facilities in the form of tax-free research grants.

It's easy to see why people are upset about this, the kneejerk reaction is to see this as a classic conflict of interest, a fairy tale where the benevolent non-partisan funding organization is corrupted by that most evil of nemeses, Big Pharma - all because of a plot by the Big Bad Government.

The error here is that Pfizer isn't eligible for most of that research money, which makes them ineligible for a conflict of interest. However, over half the CIHR governing council are university professors from research centres that do actually compete for CIHR funding. Part of success on a CIHR grant application is based on how many other grants have been given to your institute. This strikes me as being more of the classic conflict of interest as most people define it.

I don't think the problem is with Big Pharma making its way into CIHR. Business has a place in science no matter how many people - researchers and laypeople alike - wish it weren't so. The perspective on science is different between academia and industry. Both have their pros and cons, and I think that CIHR and academia in general might profit from exploring some of the alternative ways of looking at science.

My problem is that when I look though the CIHR website, I can see that Pfizer has been spending millions on funding CIHR grants over the last couple of years - and now an exec is on the board. This looks like patronage of the basest sort, but it isn't conflict of interest. Even if it does leave the same sour taste in your mouth.

What I don't find immediately apparent is what kind of return Pfizer is getting on their millions of dollars of investment, apart from tax breaks. A single position on a board of roughly 20 members isn't exactly overwhelming power or voice in the policy or direction of CIHR. What's so great about that?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Church and State Don't Mix Like Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Around the web:
  • Canadian Transport Minister hopes that one day, in the future, the trains between Montreal and Toronto will run as fast as they did 35 years ago...
  • The Pope drops the ball on potentially thousands more Africans and South Americans by denying condom use can help stop the spread of AIDS...
  • Stimulants are addictive? Wha?

* * *

Our Minister of State - Science and Technology, the Hon. Gary Goodyear is on CBC today being grilled for potentially being a creationist. He refused to answer a question about believing in evolution on the grounds that he's "a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate." Which is kind of disturbing from a Science and Technology perspective.

So then he does a follow-up with the Globe and Mail, who got the original story, clearing the air saying he believes in evolution, and clearly goes on to demonstrate he does not understand evolution at all:

"We are evolving every year, every decade. That's a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else..."

Well, no. By definition, evolution happens over multiple generations rather than within lifetimes. Evolution also posits that we are the descendants of multicellular organisms that split from the algae a little over 500 million years ago, rather than having been more or less popped into existence in 4004 BC.

Dr. Marc Garneau - ex-astronaut, D.Eng. and Opposition Science Critic - says that believing in evolution is a personal choice, and Dr. Jacques Galipeau says he wouldn't have cared if the budget last month hadn't slashed research funding (if not in so many words). And they're right - I don't care what my boss believes in, just so long as I get paid. But you have to wonder just how passionate a guy can be about funding for biology and basic medical research when he doesn't believe in evolution...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Child abuse rips genes

Again on the pet peeve of flu shots for healthy people and antibacterial soaps - a recent report shows that 98% of influenza A strains in the US, and 100% in Canada, are resistant to the flu drug Tamiflu. Hardly surprising given that we've treated about 50 million people with it, and chances are that most of them were improperly medicated.

* * *

So once again, my boss is making waves in the news, this time with actual science, which is a bit of relief. A study mostly carried out by one of our post-doctoral fellows has been getting a great amount of media attention, as it's a very interesting finding. He shows that suicide victims with a history of abuse carry a higher amount of an alteration to DNA structure (but not sequence) that controls the expression of a gene involved in the stress response (glucocorticoid receptor Nr3c1 promoter methylation in hippocampus, for those keeping track). This alteration may "silence" the gene and have rendered these people more subject to anxiety and other negative effects of stress.

My favorite thing about this study has been the press, particularly the BBC's headline of "Child abuse 'impacts stress gene'." One thing I can't figure out about the BBC is why they put those little single quotation marks around a couple words in about 50% of their headlines: "Staff 'too timid' on child abuse," "'Ethical' stem cell hope," or "Veterans at 'higher suicide risk.'"

What do these little quotes mean? They certainly aren't a direct quotes, as my boss would beat you about the head and shoulders for saying the glucocorticoid receptor is a stress gene. They seem to serve no purpose other than to confuse people who want to use real quotation marks on their headlines for citation purposes.

In any case, people tend to take findings like this WAY too far to support whatever point of view that they have. Take the CBC's angle on the story, for example. We've got a journalist claiming that "in a way... the men were programmed to be more vulnerable to overwhelming feelings of despair," which didn't come from any of the researchers on this study (trust me, I know them all personally). Then we have a pharmacologist saying we should aim to "identify these people and then probably offer them some sort of intervention," which is interesting because 1) we have no indication whatsoever that the methylation changes actually cause the suicides, and 2) it's a real bastard trying to get those samples out of living human brains.

From the blogosphere, I think my favorite quote so far has been something along the lines of how obvious it is that abuse is bad and should we really spend millions on research to prove it? I can hardly claim impartiality here, seeing as how my salary gets paid directly from those grants, but the answer is "yes we should, because it's not obvious at all."

OK, so it's obvious that beating your kids is bad (unless you're Russell Peters), but what isn't obvious is why, on a biological level, child abuse is harmful for development. Is it obvious that DNA methylation patterns along the Nr3c1 promoter would be different in the hippocampus of abused suicide victims? Is it obvious that beating your children is like picking up their DNA and twisting it around? Is it obvious why legislators feel like there has to be some kind of biological correlate in order to make a disease somehow legitimate?

We're on your side, people. Don't accuse us of wasting government funds by proving the "obvious." If it's so obvious, then I'm in the comments section waiting patiently for a scientific explanation of the precise gene-environment interactions leading up to suicide.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Remixing memories

I'm thinking that The Globe and Mail has been checking out my blog, seeing this article from earlier in the week talking about the things from my last post. Particularly how other countries are pumping money into research while Canada is cutting. Interestingly, they interviewed my PhD supervisor, who is apparently "one of Canada's top scientists".

I'm pleased how closely his opinions follow mine, and that they're publishing them in the Globe and Mail. I'm a bit disturbed about being so similar to my boss, though. I'm also disturbed that he apparently has fantasies of moving to Signapore...

* * *

A genetic therapy approach to treating AIDS that I blogged about last summer is currently recruiting for its first clinical trial. This is pretty incredibly quick, but it seems very safe - take some of a patient's blood, take out the T-cells, culture them, insert the gene, grow a whole pile of the modified cells, and then return them to the patient. This follows on the footsteps of another successful trial of gene therapy for AIDS treatments.

The risks of these treatments seem minimal. The gene transfer isn't contagious to other cells, and the T-cells come from the patient's own body so there should be no risk of rejection. Assuming the cells aren't grown in an animal serum, which could induce a rejection response in patients. But I imagine these guys know what they're doing.

Of course, the guys injecting a Russian boy with stem cells also knew what they were doing, and they knew the risks. Turns out they lost this bet - the kid developed extensive tumours throughout his nervous system. While this was a predicted potential side effect, I don't think anyone was expecting this to go so spectacularly wrong.

* * *

If there's one thing I've been wanting to blog about this week, it's this story about using a heart medication (propranalol, a beta-blocker) to "block bad memories." People are going buck-wild about this - I even saw it on Facebook (I have some geeky friends). But the study is not all it's cracked up to be.

The researchers conditioned people to be "afraid" of spiders by showing them pictures of spiders and then shocking them, a Pavlovian paradigm that couples a neutral stimulus (spider) to an averse stimulus (shock), and transfers the unpleasant feeling associated with the shock to the spider. The drug was able to reverse this conditioning, so people no longer had an adverse response to the spiders. And now it's being touted as a treatment for PTSD and anxiety disorders.

First of all, I would like someone to explain to me and a couple of war veterans exactly how shocking someone while looking at pictures of spiders is anything remotely like traumatic experiences like losing a limb in a firefight or having your friend's brains blown out all over you. Or even like being in a car crash.

Secondly, even something like a phobia against an object (say, spiders) isn't like a conditioned association. In fact, it's the opposite. The reason it's a phobia is precisely because it's an unconditioned and irrational fear of an object. Show me a trial with arachnophobics on propanalol viewing pictures of tarantulas and I don't think we'll see such stunning claims being made.

The idea is that when we remember things, we take the representation out of long-term storage in our brains and move it into "working memory," a sort of RAM buffer memory for your brain. When we're done with it, it gets re-programmed back into the long-term storage. If we can remove the bad associations from the memory before we code it back into long-term storage, then we can remove some of the anxiety and pathology that comes from remembering it.

I, for one, am not sure that this will work. I think that removing a simple conditioned association is a lot different from removing the particularly vivid memories that many PTSD patients have, and that the emotional component of these memories is much more intense than a simple shock to the finger. I think the biochemical underpinnings are significantly more complicated than simple noradrenaline release as well. That being said, we can condition men to respond sexually to an old boot, but again I would argue that this neither a complex behaviour nor particularly difficult to accomplish. Now if we could do it in women, then we'd be on to something.

I'm not sure what it will take to "erase" these memories, but I refer you back to an earlier post I made on memory manipulation and Joe Tsien's quote: "All memories, including the painful emotional memories, have their purposes. We learn great lessons from those memories or experiences so we can avoid making the same kinds of mistakes again, and help us to adapt down the road."

* * *

My other blog, for those who are interested, is up. The first post is enititled "Douglas Zombies Need Brains." And if that doesn't pique your interest, then I don't want you reading it anyways.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blowing Ourselves (another bubble)

I was amused a couple months ago by this comic from Jorge Cham at, which depicts a graph of changes in enrollment to grad studies over time superimposed over the unemployment figures. The correlation is incredible.

Being all in fun, you'd be excused for thinking the artist was just exploiting a quirk of statistics to get a laugh. But then you see Nature reporting exactly the same thing last week and realize that it's not funny, thousands of people think that getting a Ph.D. is worth money. Many people accept this as true, but I think you'd have a hard time convincing Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of that. Or me, for that matter.

For their sakes, I hope that a good portion of these thousands are working on M.B.A.s rather than Ph.D.s, particularly in science. Nature also had a feature last week about two very successful US scientists closing their labs because their funding has simply dried up. An editorial in the same issue points out that "The career crisis is especially stark in the biomedical fields, where the number of tenure-track and tenured positions has not increased in the past two decades even as universities have nearly doubled their production of biomedical doctorates. Those who do land jobs in academic research are struggling to keep them..."

All that to say professors doing academic research in their ivory towers are being as hard hit by the budget cuts, loss of endowment funds and general financial crisis as anyone else. And they don't get severance packages in the millions of dollars. Even still, I guess starting a doctorate is a bit like signing a 4-6 year contract at a meagre (but fairly secure) salary, and maybe some kind of health coverage, which is better than a lot of American citizens can say.

Maybe it is the smart move. Presumably, you set yourself up for a better job by working on an advanced degree during the recession, which will be a couple years long anyways. Good jobs should become available as we begin blowing ourselves another economic bubble to drive unsustainable expenditure - I predict some kind of -tech bubble, be it bio-, nano- or green-. Plus, it won't be long before some genius figures out a new way to create money out of nothing now that subprime mortgages are bust.

But bubbles always burst. That's why they're bubbles. When the economy crashes, it does so like a plane. It doesn't care if you're Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly; or how many fancy-pants letters there are after your name. There will be blood.