Tag Archives: Science in Society

Immigrants are Critical for American Science

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My great-grandfather, a political refugee from Latvia, was a bacteriologist for Merck.

The Trump administration’s ill-conceived and implemented executive order harms all sorts of people, like Iraqis who risked their lives to help the US military, and US citizens whose spouses, parents, and children are not citizens. The policy is inhumane and will likely damage our national security.

It also harms science, as many are pointing out. (See Ed Yong in the Atlantic for stories of scientists who are directly affected.) Immigrants play an enormous role making American science great. I made the case for this in a Pacific Standard piece two years ago – and it’s a good day to reup the argument:

Science has always been most successful when countries exchange ideas, talent, and resources, which is why one of the National Research Council’s “ten breakthrough actions” recommended to Congress is to “ensure that the United States will continue to benefit strongly from the participation of international students and scholars in our research enterprise.” Our scientific preeminence relies heavily on migrant scientists, and that’s a good thing.

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The FDA Should Only Approve Drugs Backed By Science

Here’s some Inauguration Day reading for you:

For half a century, the FDA has regulated drugs on the premise that science should show that they’re safe and effective before drug companies get to sell them. Before modern drug laws, companies filled the market with ineffective products, backed by no evidence that they worked.

As I write this week in Pacific Standard, a couple of candidates for Trump’s FDA seem to think that we should go back to that era before modern drug laws. Jim O’Neill, a venture capitalist who invests in biotech argues that as long as companies can show a drug is safe, the FDA should let patients take it “at their own risk,” regardless of whether that drug is useless.

And biomedical engineer/biotech executive Balaji Srinivasan thinks that, rather than testing drugs with clinical trials, people should just rate them the way they rate their Uber drivers. Given that people believe all sorts of insane things about what makes them healthier, this is not likely to be a way to rigorously learn whether a drug actually does something for the patients who buy – and whether its not just the drug company ripping people off.

In my piece, I explain exactly why these ideas would be bad for you. But the overarching theme is this: the problem with the two candidates, and their associate Peter Thiel (who is advising Trump on the FDA) is that they see drugs and biotech from the view of investors and startup executives. These are people who hear promising, brilliant medical ideas all the time from scientists and entrepreneurs, people who want to take fledgling ideas and turn them into therapies. That’s great, but in the end, most of these promising, brilliant ideas will in fact be wrong – and that’s why we need the FDA to protect us by weeding out the failures.

More Science is Always a Winning Bet

Eric Lander in The Boston Globe on hype and hope in medical research is well worth reading:

Science is the most powerful force in the world for improving human health and well-being. It consistently pays enormous returns on society’s investment, transforming the way we live and work.

This is a case we need to keep making, to society and our political leaders as we head into a new Congress, new administration, and new state governments in 2017. As Nature also argues this week, scientists need to stay politically engaged. And that doesn’t just mean partisanship; it means engaging with the party in power, even if it’s not yours.

GMO wild organisms: As if GMO crops weren’t controversial enough…

The big biotech controversy of last year was over the ethics of using CRISPR to edit human embryos – something which a team of Chinese scientists did last April. The possibility of designer babies led to a major scientific summit meeting, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences, during which the attendees concluded that “It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing” until safety concerns are allayed and society comes closer to an ethical consensus.

While the world was fretting about edited embryos, scientists introduced an even more ethically fraught biotechnology: gene drives, a tool to genetically modify organisms in the wild. Gene drives have the potential to do a lot of good, by controlling disease vectors like malaria-bearing mosquitos. But if you thought GMO crops were controversial, just wait to see how people react to GMO wild organisms.

I cover the new CRISPR-based gene drive technologies in my latest Pacific Standard column. Here’s the tl;dr version: Gene drives can do a lot of good, but because they are simple to make, and because their consequences aren’t confined by political borders, we’re going to have a hell of a time ensuring they’re used responsibly.

Genomycism: “Deflating the Genomic Bubble”

Genomycism – the unsubstantiated belief that the cataloging of the genomic sequence of an individual conveys useful understanding about their ancestry, current characteristics, and disease risk with high degrees of accuracy and predictive power.

An important policy forum article has appeared in the most recent issue of Science discussing the expectations for the benefits of genomics, the issues created when those expectations are unrealistic, overinflated, and over-hyped[1]. Continue reading