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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

'Planetary Life' Archive

A CLEAR AND PRESENT FAILURE

by ~ June 30, 2009

I’ve been worried for a while what happens to identity data when firms downsize or go out of business. But it didn’t occur to me that Clear would actually be one of them—even though the identity provider’s business model was suspect from the beginning, Clear seemed to governmental to fail. But it did!

Would love to hear others’ thoughts on this one!

ANTHRAX, TERRORISM AND RISK COMMUNICATION
WHY WE NEED SOCIAL SCIENTISTS IN GOVERNMENT

by ~ December 7, 2008

A few posts ago, I made a plea for the Obama administration to include social scientists in the mix as it moves to return science to its rightful position of inclusion and respect in the public policy sphere. If you want just one real-life example of what’s at stake by not doing so, read this letter about the “updated” Technical Assistance Document on anthrax contamination, proposed by EPA and several federal agencies after the 2001 and 2002 attacks.

It’s written to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, from my colleague Baruch Fischhoff, the Carnegie Mellon risk expert and professor who’s chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Committee for the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board.

Fischhoff wrote:

[S]everal Committee Members, myself included, were distressed at the lack of systematic, scientific attention to communicating with the public.  … It is not unique to this anthrax project, but reflects a general problem in our national emergency planning … As we saw in 2001, a b. anthracis (“anthrax”) attack has enormous potential for achieving our enemies’ goals, even when causing relatively few casualties … Much of that damage came from our own inability to communicate credibly, causing needless concern and distrust that persists to this day.

With its rigorous methodologies and an impressive body of academic literature supporting it, risk communication represents the bounty of wisdom that can be found in the applied social sciences, from fields including psychology, communications, decision analysis, rhetoric, sociology, political science, law, ethics, linguistics and anthropology.

But the scientific aspects of risk communication are often entirely overlooked or dismissed by technical experts and authorities in both emergency preparation and response. Instead, they assume that  their knowledge of technical details, their intuition about what to say to the public, or their charisma (this being the politicians) will give people enough information to respond to emergencies.

Call it ignorance, arrogance or denial, but that attitude is a big mistake, and it has real consequences.

Look back at Hurricane Katrina for some horrific examples. Not only did authorities fail to get the frail and the poor out of New Orleans, it utterly failed to persuade tens of thousands of them who could evacuate the city to do so.

And recall the disaster that one risk expert called the “Duct Tape Risk Communication” emergency preparation strategy, proposed by the White House in 2003, which immediately was turned into a lampoon to skewer the U.S. government, rather than inspiring citizens to take useful action.

People need to trust their leaders and technical experts to tell them the truth in emergencies, in ways that actually answer their questions — questions which will be different for business leaders than for schoolteachers — and address their fears. Without that trust, the public isn’t going to follow instructions.

As Fischhoff said in his letter to EPA, the only way to prepare for emergencies is to have an inventory of scientifically sound risk communications on hand — pre-scripted press releases, print and electronic explanatory materials, guides to self-testing, FAQs and the like — ready to be adapted to specific circumstances. And,

Communications research planning is not expensive.  However, it requires a skill set that is not represented in the anthrax [Techical Assistance Document] task force.  Nor is it present in most other parts of our national response effort [including the Emergency Consequence Assessment Tool and the WaterSentinel Program (PDF)].  As a result, much of what passes for risk communication advice has no scientific foundation.

Thankfully, compared to some of the other problems facing the Obama administration, this is an easy one to fix. And given the nature of some of those problems, they may want to fix this one now.

UNCERTAINTY IS NOT A FACTOR IN
SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY — IT’S THE FACTOR

by ~ November 20, 2008

Earlier this week, I got a phone call from Steve Aldrich and Jim Newcomb, respectively CEO and director of research for Bio Economic Research Associates, a private research and advisory firm.

They’d read my paper on risk and synthetic biology and thought my characterization of their report on synthetic biology, “Genome Synthesis and Design Futures: Implications for the U.S. Economy,” was unfair.

The larger issue that our disagreement is based on — that is, how to pay proper fealty to scientific uncertainty — is at the core of my discontent with how technology innovations are assessed for risk and benefit.

So I told them I would write about our disagreement here. This way, they have an opportunity to respond, and maybe we can get a discussion going on the subject.

Here is what I wrote:

Of the most concern in the context of risk and governance are the reports that uncritically support synthetic biology, as they encourage development and commercial release with little or no acknowledgment of the degree of scientific uncertainty that surrounds the endeavor. A 174-page report on synthetic biology published by Bio-Economic Research Associates in 2007 and funded by the Department of Energy (which itself has invested heavily in synthetic biology research), contained but a single, three-quarter-page discussion of the limitations of the engineering paradigm as applied to living systems. Giving such short shrift to a topic that is still under deep consideration in the broader scientific community lends an air of certainty to a highly uncertain endeavor. Such under-representation has real significance from the perspective of investment and economic risk, as well as from that of health and the environment.

[Italics added by me; they aren’t in the paper.] Continue reading »

NEW IDEAS ABOUT GENES?
AGAIN, I SAY: SPEAK TO ME OF RISK

by ~ November 13, 2008

It is not always happy-making to be ahead of one’s time.

On Tuesday, the New York Times published package of articles that explored new genetic research and new ideas of what a gene is.

Much of the package was based on the findings of the ENCODE study, which was sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The upshot of ENCODE, which was published about a year and a half ago, in June 2007, was pretty straightforward: the human genome is not a “tidy collection of independent genes,” after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single protein, which in turn is linked to a single function, like the production of an enzyme.

Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways will challenge scientists ”to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do.”

The lead story in the package notes this perspective, writing that scientists “no longer conceive of a typical gene as a single chunk of DNA encoding a single protein,” and quoting one of them as saying, simply, “It cannot work that way.”

YES! I was so excited that this issue was finally going to get some attention. Not only was one of the central themes of my book, Intervention, but I too wrote a column about ENCODE for the New York Times — called “A Challenge to Gene Theory: A Tougher Look at Biotech” — right after the results were published, in July 2007.

In it, I asked what (to me) is the most obvious and important question, but it was addressed nowhere in the NYT package: Continue reading »

MORTON SCOOPED JUDSON/NYT BY 5+ YEARS

by ~ February 24, 2008

Earlier this week, Olivia Judson posted a much-commented-upon essay on the biology of clouds at the New York Times site.

I am happy to report that in April 2002, Oliver Morton, Hybrid Vigor Fellow and the news and features editor for Nature (as well as the author of two books), wrote a terrific monograph for Hybrid Vigor on essentially the same subject, The Living Skies: Cloud Behavior and Its Role in Climate Change.

NEW REPORTS FROM THE U.K. OFFICE OF SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

by ~ February 8, 2008

The U.K.’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) functions something like the late lamented U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, killed off by Newt Gingrich back in the ’90s. They regularly publish brief but fairly comprehensive, interdisciplinary reports with cross-sector relevance on trends in science and technology.

POST recently published three POSTnotes entitled “Ecological Networks” [PDF], “Smart Metering of Electricity and Gas” [PDF] and “Autism” [PDF]. The first two POSTnotes for 2008 were on “smart” materials and systems, and synthetic biology.

You can subscribe to the POST reports yourself, by sending an email to: mailto:[email protected].

“Ecological Networks” considers the possible conservation benefits of ecological network implementation in the UK. Ecological networks are intended to maintain environmental processes and to help to conserve biodiversity where remnants of semi-natural habitat have become fragmented and isolated. Continue reading »

‘INTERVENTION’ WINS A SILVER MEDAL!

by ~ May 29, 2007

I’m very happy to report that my book, Intervention, has won a Silver Medal in the Science category, in the 2007 Independent Publishers Book Awards competition.

IPPY winners in 65 categories were selected from a total of 2,690 national entries came from “all 50 U.S. states, eight Canadian provinces, and 17 countries overseas.”

In the Science category, I’m flanked by books published by Harvard University Press and Yale University Press. I’m proud that li’l ol’ Hybrid Vigor Press has found itself in such good company. Very proud indeed.

PREVENTING PANDEMICS, INTERDISCIPLINARILY

by ~ May 11, 2007

Via the blog at Genome Technology Online, I stumbled onto this terrific essay at The Scientist, called “A New Dynamic … Can a Penn State center predict and prevent the next pandemic?”

… During the breeding season, tiny leeches climb aboard the newts, sucking their blood, and possibly transmitting Icthyophonus, a fungus-like pathogen that hides in the newt’s muscle. Newts have other parasites, too. Tom Raffel, a postdoc at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD) at Pennsylvania State University, has documented more than 20 different parasites in Pennsylvania newts. Two are new to science.

In the past, a scientist might single out a pathogen, map its life cycle, and describe the consequences for its victims. Although pathogens represent more than half of all life on earth, only a small fraction have ever been studied. So, a new approach to infectious disease is taking root both around the world and here on the shores of Beaver Pond. Raffel doesn’t study newts, or leeches, or Icthyophonus. He studies the Beaver Pond community and the myriad interactions within. Just a few miles away at CIDD, researchers are looking at human pathogens, too - measles, influenza, and Escherichia coli among others - and trying to understand the communities of these pathogens within cities and within hosts, piecing together the way these interactions evolve over time.

Despite advances in vaccine strategies and drug treatments, many scientists worry that not enough is being done to suppress, let alone anticipate, the next pandemic. Scientists at CIDD are taking principles of population biology, community ecology, and evolution and wedding them to epidemiology, immunology, and genomics. This approach could help optimize vaccination strategies, design eradication programs, halt incipient pandemics, and it could identify potential zoonoses before they’ve infected humans. In the three short years that CIDD has been around, it’s become a hotbed of interdisciplinary collaboration with 12 faculty members from departments around the Penn State campus.

Daniel Falush, an evolutionary geneticist at Oxford University, describes one effect CIDD has had in the United Kingdom: “There was a great sucking sound because these famous British scientists were disappearing to Penn State.” Actually, Ottar Bjørnstad, a Norwegian mathematical ecologist, was the first to make the move to State College in 2001. At that time, Peter Hudson was at the University of Stirling in Scotland but was displeased with their new president, who he says wasn’t supportive of biology. When Penn State invited him for a visit, he loved the atmosphere, and it didn’t hurt that his friend Bjørnstad had already scoped out the local pubs. …

[snip]

The piece quotes Hudson as saying, “Our vision really is to have a systems approach to disease,” says Hudson. “Issues that go from intracellular interactions between viruses and cells right the way through to pandemics, something we call the protein-to-pandemic link.”

I daresay that reality will probably turn out to be a bit less linear than that, but at least their linear thinking is horizontal!

HOW YOU GONNA KEEP ‘EM ON THE PHARM?

by ~ April 8, 2007

Today, my ‘Re:framing’ column in The New York Times was on the scientific evidence that has been used by industry and the U.S. Agriculture Department to support safety claims about biopharma crops. These are the next generation of plants that have been genetically engineered to grow drugs and industrial chemicals in open fields in the U.S. and around the world.

The column is basically my entire book, Intervention, crammed into 1300 words. As a result I had to leave out some important stuff, so I decided to post some of it here.

One of the things I would have liked to dig into a bit was the USDA’s statement about the amount of scientific input the agency uses to develop its regulations.

As evidence, the person I spoke with mentioned that in 2002, the agency had commissioned a peer-reviewed National Academies study on the subject, called Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants.

It was a curious example to choose. Because I read that report when I was writing Intervention, and it sure sounded to me like the USDA got handed its head on a plate.

Continue reading »

PLAYING DICE WITH THE BIOSPHERE?
INTERVENTION IN SALON

by ~ March 12, 2007

Scott Rosenberg, a former colleague of mine from the former golden days of the San Francisco Examiner, interviewed me for the Book section of today’s Salon. (He also blogged the interview.)

In the piece, Scott asked me some questions — about how some journalists have overlooked the risk story, and about why I had to publish the book through Hybrid Vigor, rather than through a traditional publishing house — that I hadn’t talked about before.