Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Journalism + Science = BFFs in the Post-truth Era?

"Over-worked," "under-paid" and "liberal" are adjectives that typify the average journalist according to a headline from The Atlantic a couple years ago. Some might say that these words could be used to describe the average research scientist at an academic institution as well.

But beyond these labels, I've come to realize that the similarities between both professions run very deep.

In the purest sense, both the scientist and the journalist are slaves to the facts and details. They are both committed to seeking the inconspicuous truth, and communicating their findings to the masses. Carl Sagan's axiom "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is equally applicable to either as a guiding principle of ethics. Investigating, questioning, ignoring bias, learning and writing are hallmarks of both professions that were just as essential to Woodward and Bernstein for Watergate as they were to Watson and Crick for describing the structure of DNA.

Scientific research institutions and print journalism outlets have also shared a common financial struggle in recent decades. The former due to stagnant federal support, and the latter due to the emergence of a competitive and expansive digital market.

Now it seems that the two institutions will share another common struggle that is on the rise: maintaining relevance in culture that increasingly values ideals more than facts.

In the same way that verifiable scientific claims have been frustrated by baseless pseudo-science nonsense that finds life on the internet, real fact-based investigative journalism has been forced to compete with the advent of "fake news" and low-quality "click-bait" sites that have gained prominence online during this past election cycle. In response, both Google and Facebook have begun taking measures this week to prevent "fake news" sites from using their advertising platforms.

But sadly, what is the age of information for some people is also the age of misinformation for others. The Oxford Dictionary just chose "post-truth" as its Word of the Year for 2016. It is a good word for when extraordinary claims no longer require extraordinary evidence and people are more easily persuaded instead by insults, complicit deceit and the logic of memes.

Being keenly aware of this concern, the veteran journalist Dan Rather wrote a very appropriate piece in Scientific American this week in which he argued that it will become increasingly important for scientists and journalists to be allied in their efforts. In his words:

"What we need is sustained and improved partnerships between the press and the scientific community. We need more cross-pollination and engagement. We need experimentation on form, tone, content, and distribution. We cannot allow science content to be relegated to echo chambers or elite distribution outlets. We need to try to find a way to take the message to where the people are, through digital promotion, distribution and social media engagement."

Mr. Rather went on to express his support as a journalist for the cause of science, and described ways in which he intends to be proactively involved with the scientific community. 

Obviously, this resonates with me and aligns with my intentions on this blog. I hope to be similarly involved with the journalism community during my scientific career, and this week I reached a goal that will help me do that. I was accepted as a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), something I've been working toward all year.

I believe that decisions are best made in the context of reality, and I hope that scientists and journalists can successfully work together to persuade the public to agree on that too. Because if we can't agree on basic facts, then what hope do we have to ever find agreement in our opinions?

If you want to support good journalism, one easy thing you can do is sign up for a digital (or even paper) subscription to a reputable newspaper or news magazine that holds itself accountable for what it reports. And if you want to support good science, you can sign up to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In any case, please support good communication by not posting links to media that make extraordinary claims without first doing a bit of due diligence on your part -- regardless of your bias. 

It's in the long-term best interest of everyone.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

$1.1 Billion for Zika: The FY 2017 Breakdown

Last week, the President signed into law an act of spending that includes $1.1 billion allocated for Zika virus-related efforts through the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30, 2017). As I have written about previously, this funding has traveled a long and sinuous road through Congress since February, when the President originally requested $1.9 billion in emergency aid for Zika.

But now that it’s finally official, here’s a look at what it contains. This figure shows a breakdown of how the $1,108,094,000 in Zika funding is divvied up.
Most relevant to the scientific community is the $933 million allocated to the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Of this, $152 million is designated for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) “for research on the virology, natural history, and pathogenesis of the Zika virus infection and preclinical and clinical development of vaccines and other medical countermeasures for the Zika virus and other vector-borne diseases, domestically and internationally,” as stated in the bill.

This is good news for the many scientists who have initiated research projects in response to the emerging concerns relating to Zika, and hope to continue that work. Researchers are currently digging for answers to questions such as how long the virus can persist in the infected person, what mechanisms underlie the range of symptoms (or lack thereof) that can result from infection and how the course of Zika virus infection might be affected by co-infections from other Flaviviruses such as the dengue virus.

This is also good news for researchers interested in developing a vaccine against Zika. Additional support for a Zika virus vaccine is provided in the $387 million designated to the NIH Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund.

In order for a new vaccine to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration for public use, it must first pass through three costly and time-consuming phases of clinical trials. NIAID director Anthony Fauci explained in a recent interview that there are already two Zika DNA vaccine candidates that are in the first phase of these trials (NCT01099852 and NCT02840487), and several others that are a step behind in the preclinical stages of testing. Without this funding, plans to move trials with these vaccine candidates into the next phase by January would have been stalled. Since the Brazilian summer mosquito season is at its peak in January, this timing is critical.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also receives a $394 million slice of this pie, which the bill states will be used “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to Zika virus, health conditions related to such virus, and other vector-borne diseases, domestically and internationally”. This will be a boon to places like Florida, where mosquito control efforts have strained local budgets; and Puerto Rico, where the first major outbreak of Zika infections this year is estimated to have affected at least a few thousand pregnant women who will give birth in the coming months.

Also included in this funding is nearly $20 million for the Department of State that will support foreign and domestic response efforts, and over $155 million in foreign aid for ‘Bilateral Economic Assistance’ and ‘International Assistance Programs’ via the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This money will fund coordinated efforts with groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO), which has requested $122 million this year from donor countries to implement a strategic response to Zika. So far, it has received only $21.3 million, about half of which has already come from USAID.

Friday, May 13, 2016

How many different species are on earth?

If mankind were to visit Mars and find life, among our first questions would be how many different forms of it exist there. Ironically though, this is not a question that we can answer about our own planet.
On earth, life is on the bottoms of the ocean, it is floating on the dust in the atmosphere, and it is found in every crevice in between. Try as we might, it is nearly impossible to count all the species. But so far, we have cataloged over 1,600,000 of them. And we can only estimate how many are yet to be  found and identified.
Back in 2011, a group of scientists actually did produce such an estimation. Their approach to doing this was a bit like estimating the number of jellybeans in a jar based on how many are visible, and doing so for each color. Except with way more sophisticated math.

Based on the number of known species cataloged at the time, they came up with the estimate of 8,749,900 species, not counting the microbes (bacteria and archaea).
If we were to break this number down into the classification groups (plants, animals, etc.), it would look like this graphic below. It’s mostly animals, which includes all insects, spiders, and other crawly things.

Now, let's talk about the microbes - all the creatures we can't see. In May 2016, a couple of other researchers came up with a new estimation for those guys: 100,000,000,000 species (or, 100 billion). And this is the low end of their estimation*. 
To put this in perspective, here’s how that number compares to the 8,749,900 forms of higher life shown above (eukaryotes).
You can see how the number of more complex species is almost insignificant.
This amount of microbial diversity is incomprehensible. To me, it seems impossibly high. But how would I know? I can’t see all the microbes around me (and inside me). That is part of what makes this a tough estimation to make. The other part is that at the microbial level, it is difficult to distinguish one species from another when you are trying to classify them. A given species of bacteria will usually have many different strains, and it’s a fuzzy genetic line sometimes that separates a 'strain' from a 'species'. Microorganisms are indifferent to our attempts to classify them. They just are what they are, and they are evolving.
In any case, consider that as human beings, we are only one of billions of species on a planet where "life finds a way". Lots of ways. In a universe that is otherwise sterile for as far as we can see, we should be humbled by the diversity of life that surrounds us. If we protect life in all of its forms, there is still much we can learn from it.

*I used the lower end of the estimation because it included microscopic fungi, which were also included in the 8,749,900 value. The upper estimation was 10-fold higher: 1 trillion.



Sunday, May 8, 2016

Evolution From Blog to Website

For the scientist, the process of peer-reviewed publication forms the foundation for all research. It is a feedback loop - a self-perpetuating and co-dependent exchange of input and output between scientists.

There was a nice piece written a few years ago in Wired magazine about the power of feedback loops. That article explains that all feedback loops have four components: 

1. Evidence
2. Relevance
3. Consequence
4. Action

In regards to science, Evidence = Data.

But raw data alone won't persuade the majority of your audience. From the Wired article:  

"..the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured, but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage."

In other words, relevance is a function of how well you are able to communicate your data.

Communicating science to the general public is a notorious challenge for most scientists. But communication even among scientists can be a challenge too. In part, because most scientists today work across disciplines.

In either case, few things can be as helpful to the process as a clear diagram that distills and translates the cognitive beauty of really good data into something that is equally pleasing aesthetically. Since I enjoy producing diagrams, I recently decided to expand this blog into a website (www.cognitivefeedbackloop.com), and offer up my services to other scientists. 

For a nominal fee, I will gladly draw up a publication quality vector diagram according to publisher specifications for any scientist that is interested. I will continue with the blog too, which will also now serve as a gallery for some of my past work (albeit with a different intended audience in mind).

Good science communication with the public feeds back to the researcher in the form of continued funding support for further work. And good science communication within the scientific community feeds back to the researcher in the form of new discoveries, that enable deeper questions to be explored. 

In either case, I believe that a beautiful diagram will reach far more people than data or text can on its own. If you are a scientist, and you think I might be able to help you out in this regard, let's chat. Send me an email through robert@cognitivefeedbackloop.com

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Robbing Ebola to Pay Zika: Are you cool with that?

Summary of the response to Zika virus in 2016 from the scientific community, World Health Organization, U.S. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. President, and U.S. Congress.

This here is Aedes aegypti.

Or just a mosquito, as many would see it.

Actually it is one of over 3,500 different types of mosquitos that exist around the world. It is in the news right now because it is known to transmit the Zika virus, and it lives in South and North America. It wasn’t always in the Americas – it was native to Africa. But it immigrated its way across the Altantic some time ago. It is now migrating northward into the United States. So far, more than half of the 50 states have this mosquito in them. Anywhere this mosquito is found, there is potential for Zika virus to spread (among other diseases).

The Zika virus was first reported in 1952. We still don’t know very much about it. But here are a few things we have learned about it since the World Health Organization declared it a "public health emergency" on February 1 this year.

Zika virus can be transmitted sexually, from men to women or between men.

Zika virus can be transmitted in utero, from pregnant women to the fetus.

Zika virus can infect brain cells during early development.

Zika virus can cause microcephaly and other brain disorders in affected infants.

Zika virus can cause eye problems or blindness in affected infants.

Zika virus can retard or abolish fetal development.

Zika virus can cause miscarriage or prematurity.

Infants are susceptible if the mother is infected by Zika virus during the first or second trimester of pregnancy.

Zika virus can cause autoimmune disorders including acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) and Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults.

This is quite alarming, particularly if you are a woman who is pregnant, or planning to become pregnant soon. And it raises many more questions that do not yet have answers.

But as we learned from past epidemics like SARS and Ebola, the best way to stop a public health emergency is to nip it in the bud. This is also the most economical way, because an emergency response can cost a lot of money. But how much?

On February 15, the World Health Organization (WHO) requested $56 million in funding from its member nations (including the U.S.) to coordinate a detailed emergency response plan.

One week later, President Obama requested 1.9 billion from Congress to fund surveillance, prevention, vaccine development, foreign aid, and domestic aid to the U.S. territory Puerto Rico. The Caribbean island is in the midst of a debt crisis, and does not have the infrastructure or the resources needed to implement an effective mosquito control program. Incidentally, it has become a hotbed for the spread of Zika.

This is a section of El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico that I photographed while hiking there in 2015. Like much of the infrastructure elsewhere in Puerto Rico, many ramadas and other features of the park are no longer maintained due to the economic downturn (it is still a beautiful park). Evacuated buildings and unmaintained land are left to rot and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
The U.S. Congress has so far declined to act on the funding request due to a lack of support from the Republican majority, with the exception of Florida senator Marco Rubio. Instead, Congress directed the President to divert the funds that were allocated for the Ebola response at the end of 2014. Those funds originally amounted to $5.4 billion and were intended to be used in various ways over a 5-year period.

Although Ebola is no longer considered a global health emergency, it is still a concern in West Africa. Outbreaks continue to occur in some regions there, just like they did before 2014 when Ebola wasn’t a buzzword and the WHO allegedly wasn’t responding quickly enough to prevent it from spreading.

As per the suggestion (or demands) of Congress, on April 6 the White House announced it would pull $510 million from Ebola funding and scrape together another  $79 million from other sources in order to mount an immediate $589 million response to the Zika virus.  

This amounts to less than a third of the $1.9 billion originally requested by the President. Will it be sufficient? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institutes of Health, the answer is No.

Meanwhile, as of March 22, the WHO has only received $3 million of the $56 million it is seeking to confront the spread of Zika virus before this summer when the 2016 Summer Olympic Games will take place in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. About 500,000 spectators and athletes from around the world are expected to attend. So far this year, 91,387 cases of Zika have been reported in Brazil, and 35,505 of those were in Rio.

Are you cool with that?

If not, you can let Congress know here.
A mosquito advisory in Puerto Rico from early 2015 - before Zika would have been added to the list.

Friday, January 29, 2016

What if we shared the wealth?

A 2016 report from Oxfam has recently been circulating which asserts that 62 individuals have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people (half of the population) on this planet. This gap has followed a widening trend over time, and the United States is not an exception.

This provoked me to answer a question that I wonder about from time to time:

If every working person in the U.S. got paid the same wage regardless of occupation, how much would the common salary be for each individual?

This can be estimated from two numbers, publicly available from government data.

First: 122,603,000

This is the number of individuals employed full-time (at least 35 hours/week) as of December 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Second: $15,604,900,000,000

This is the total personal income reported for the whole U.S. population for the year of 2015 according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Let's adjust this now by subtracting the amount contributed from part-time labor: $6,021,588. It's negligible, but this now gives us $15,604,893,978,412.

Dividing the adjusted total personal income by the number of full-time employees gives us the value $127,280

That would be the rough annual salary of every full-time laborer in a hypothetical America where teachers and custodians made as much as CEOs and hedge fund managers – where everyone’s pay was exactly the same. According to the most recent census data on household income, this would be an increase for about 82% of U.S households, and a decrease for the other 18%. It would also be nearly sufficient to cover the cost of living 'The American Dream', as defined by USA Today.
So here’s a follow up question:

If the annual salary were converted to an hourly wage, how many hours per week would one need to work in order to maintain a ‘middle-class’ income?

Salaried full-time employees in the U.S. work an average of 47 hours per week (we all know the 40-hour work week is a myth, right?).  So, at 47 hours per week, the $127,280 annual salary converts to an hourly wage of about $52. The plot below shows annual income prorated according to hours worked per week, based on this wage.
Now, consider that the current middle class income range for a family of 4 is defined as $48,347 to $145,041, according to the Pew Research Center during 2014. This income range is highlighted pink in the graph. At $52 per hour, it would be possible for a single household member to work 18 to 54 hours per week and still provide a middle class income for a spouse and two children. Or, that income could be achieved by both spouses each working 9 to 27 hours per week.

Of course, these numbers  represent a simplified scenario that could never exist beyond the realm of the hypothetical. They do not account for economic factors such as unemployment, income tax, capital gains, etc. But perhaps they can give us an idea of how much wealth there is in the U.S., in relatable terms that can be explained without using any complex math.