Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Overregulation of Science

The Instapundit recently linked to a great blog detailing how overregulation has suffocated and stifled some areas of science.  Research ethics boards put up painful hurdles to investigation, sometimes leading to thousands of lost lives due to delayed clinical trials. These boards may be called ethics committees (in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada) or institutional review boards/IRBs (in the United States). They delay projects and force scientists through laborious and unnecessary hoops. 

Now, I'm not sure science is actually overregulated in this regard. After all, we do need  expert guidance on how to deal with certain things. But what is certain is that the burdensome regulatory hurdles in place are counterproductive.  The whole thing reminds me of vehicle inspection in Europe (and some US states).  Europe requires high standards of vehicle maintenance: you can't drive your car there unless it is safe and meets minimum emissions standards. That's fine, and I appreciate its worth every time I see a filthy truck belching fumes on the I-40.  And cars with brakes that work reduce crash risks. What I am against, however, is Europe's compulsory vehicle inspection.  In Germany and the UK everyone must take time out and pay through the nose to get their car tested every year. That's overkill and not a cost-effective way to increase road safety. It would be much better to send everyone the book of requirements and tell them they can be randomly tested and, if their car doesn't measure up, fined. That would cut red tape and stop wasting everybody's time and money. 

The same goes for science ethics. Rather than force us to dispiritingly wade through molasses every time, give us the book of rules, tell us we must obey it and that we can either  volunteer to go through the committee (if we are uncertain about things) or run the risk of getting randomly investigated.  That shifts the responsibility to scientists while eliminating wasteful, expensive and time-consuming procedures.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mercury Emissions Controls: Worth It?

During our Science Focus Area discussion dinner last night the subject of the effectiveness of installing mercury emissions control technology in coal-fired plants came up. It seemed to me that it may not be worth the US unilaterally spending billions to clean up its coal if the result is only global, i.e., a small worldwide reduction in mercury levels, with no other countries following suit. But in fact it appears that, although mercury is a global problem,  regional mercury action has regional, rather than global,  effects. Installing the clean coal technology has been estimated to reduce the mercury levels in the US by about 50% at a cost of $16 per household per year on average. That seems worthwhile to me. A computerized nationwide referendum would allow the question to be quickly asked of the whole country.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Boat Person

My next-door neighbor in Knoxville is from Vietnam. As a teenager in the 1980s he was in a monastery, but the communist government didn't tolerate monasteries.  So he became a fisherman, and decided to bide his time, learning the ropes. At the age of 19 he escaped in a boat with an engine, but was driven back by a typhoon. (Many perished in such typhoons.) One year in jail followed. My neighbor doesn't recommend communist jails. Then, he tried again, captaining a boat with 37 people, this time with no engine, and made it across the South China Sea to the Phillippines.  My neighbor: one of the Vietnamese Boat People. Puts the rest of us to shame, I think. How many more stories are there like that in the leafy subdivisions of middle America?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part IV

Troy Wymore: had his sarin picture appear on local TV.
Demian Riccardi: incorporated Hackamol into finding potential drugs against hypoposphatemia.
Jerome Baudry: has been strongly recommended for tenure
Xiaolin Cheng: is still publishing all sorts of stuff at a rate of knots.
Barmak Mostofian: has entropy-driven explanations of ionic liquid effects.
Hong Guo: has navigated through a huge article on a mercuric reductase
Loukas Petridis: finds water has remarkable effects on cellulose
Tongye Shen: has nailed bacterial motions.
Hanna Qi: has been grappling with huge data and found contacts.
Derek Cashman and Pavan Gatty: got great new jobs.
John Eblen and Roland Schulz: have GROMACS running fast on Intel Mics.
Benjamin Lindner: published two Markovian theory articles in JCP.
Hao-Bo Guo: has figured out redox reactions in MerA.
Liang Hong: got his fourth PRL here accepted.
Karan Kapoor: has made advances in thrombosis that we can't talk about.
Amandeep Sangha: has made a first small step to drugs for four cancers.
Sally Ellingson: graduated! Then went straight to a faculty position.
Jason Harris: successfully predicted toxicity
Xiaohu Hu: is aging gracefully
Quentin Johnsongave us a great talk
Jing Zhou: published her cobalamine QM calculations.
Emal Alekozai: graduated!
Jerry Parks and Alex Johs: Won the big ORNL science prize.
Julia Cooper: retired. Many thanks for nearly four decades of service to ORNL.
Michael Galloway and Steve Moulton: got our new system ordered, installed, up and running.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Only Happy with a 15-point Lead

Sports spectatorship psychology is infuriating. Why is it that, after not caring at all for the best part of three years, it suddenly has become very important to me that the UT Vols keep progressing in the Men's Basketball NCAA tournament? Talk about fair-weather fan-dom!  Also, why is it that we watch games that can rarely actually be enjoyable to watch?  If we really care about the result, we can almost never be happy until the final whistle (or buzzer). You see, in soccer, my team has to be 3-0 up to be safe, and this never happens. 2-0 is not enough because the other team can score one then put the pressure on. Likewise, in basketball, if you haven't got a 15-point lead then you can never relax.
So last weekend there were two games to watch: Norwich versus Sunderland in soccer and the Vols against Mercer in the NCAA Round of 32. Norwich won 2-0, but we were never safe.  The Vols, on the other hand, were 15 points or more in the lead virtually throughout. So only that game  could actually be enjoyed in real time. Now, as for Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, I doubt there will be any pleasure there until, possibly,  the very, very end.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Faith in science? Really?

My colleague Glenn Reynolds, who is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UTK, a prolific scholar, and runs the Instapundit website, has written a column for the New York Post warning of trusting scientists. While stating that "honestly done, science remans the best way of getting to the truth on a wide range of factual matters" he claims that "people are losing confidence in... scientists and the institutions that purport to speak for them". He goes on to state that "there's no particular reason why one should trust scientists and especially..the people running scientific institutions, who often aren't scientists themselves." [Glenn:  minor point: while I'm loath to generalize, every scientific institution I know is indeed run by a scientist, albeit often one no longer active in research.] He suggests that scientists are often not skeptical enough and  that it's the "increasing use of science as ammunition for big-government schemes" that has led to more skepticism of the public. He finishes off with the statement "If scientists want to be trusted, perhaps they should try harder to make sure that those who claim to speak for science are, you know, trustworthy. Just a thought."

So here is a response, from one who 'speaks for science'.

As in other highly-technical fields, such as medicine, to be a scientist requires a lot of learning and training;   typically at least 10 years of undergraduate and graduate study.  Normally, although  aware that medical doctors have differing opinions and levels of competence, people do not  trust  someone without an M.D. to perform their heart surgery or fix their inflamed knee.  So why not trust scientists?

Well, this particular inflammation is of political origin, and the statement about big-government science schemes is at the core.  However, in my opinion, most people are in favor of some big-government science schemes while they may be against others. Consider, for example, a palette of projects: weapons research (such as the Manhattan Project) and other high-tech defense initiatives, blockbuster drug design,  supercomputing, biotechnology, alternative energy and climate.  None of these fields can advance (or could have advanced) rapidly without cooperative public and private investment - I'd be happy to explain why later for those who don't know. Which of these initiatives people classify as worthwhile tends to  depend on their political and world view. But these biases are often out of fear for political decisions based on the science discovered, and this conflation of science and policy is at the origin of  the mistrust.

Take our own Center for Molecular Biophysics as an illustration of the difference between the two. Quite a bit of our research is on biofuels or the environmental cycling of mercury.  Yet we don't advocate any particular political policy related to  these fields - indeed, we don't even discuss political aspects much.  As for me, I don't necessarily approve unilaterally adopting a US carbon tax or regulating US mercury emissions; these policy decisions by themselves might in fact have no real effect on the problems they are trying to address. But, like Reynolds, I am no expert on these particular questions. I don't know what other members of CMB think.

But where we do agree with each other is that we think it's important to understand the science behind biofuel production, and how mercury is transformed and transported in the environment. And so we try to understand what is needed to find technological solutions to bring down the cost of cellulosic ethanol, and we try to to understand what happens to mercury once it enters the food web.

Myself, being a 'believer' in the general worth of science and technology for mankind,  I want to see all the above-mentioned palette of projects pushed forwards. The cost to the taxpayer is small relative to other, non-science big-government schemes, and the economic return on investment enormous. Scientific research arms the population with the facts. What policy to adopt in response to the facts can then be chosen by the people and their representatives.  But if you don't have the facts in the first place, on what do you base a political decision? So why defund climate research, or epidemiological research at NIH, or research on mercury cycling?

There's no reason to 'trust' scientists more than anyone else in their advocacy for any particular policy, but cutting down scientific research itself, which is surely the corollary of not trusting scientists in general, will lead to a lurch back  towards an age of ignorance. Who then, would there be to trust?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Computational Chemist

My ex-graduate student, Zoe Cournia, writing on the Wiley Exchanges site "I  live in a virtual reality world, where everything from chemical reactions to drugs, food, materials, cosmetics, electronics, and proteins is being modeled and simulated. And you won’t believe it, but, yes, I do have a job."