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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 4

Readers Respond to "Is Drug Research Trustworthy?"

Letters to the editor from the December 2012 issue of Scientific American
World Chaning Ideas, Scientific American December 2012



Scientific American

POLICING ETHICS

“Is Drug Research Trustworthy?”—Charles Seife's article claiming that scientific institutions and individual scientists are not properly policing conflicts of interest—distorts the National Institutes of Health's interest and role in ensuring objectivity in research. Interactions between researchers and companies are vital for developing drugs, vaccines and medical devices. These partnerships function through collaboration and the need to maintain objectivity. The NIH is committed to ensuring that NIH-funded research is conducted with the highest scientific and ethical standards and that all stakeholders understand and comply with their responsibilities.

The NIH invests significant effort in monitoring conflicts of the researchers it employs, appoints or funds, including the 300,000-plus researchers funded through awards to 2,500 institutions. The revised Public Health Service financial conflicts-of-interest regulations that went into effect in September 2011 strengthen measures to achieve objectivity in NIH-extramural research.

Seife implies that the NIH should directly monitor these NIH-funded researchers rather than the institutions themselves. Institutions, however, know their employees and all their activities and are therefore in the better position to identify and manage a potential conflict. The NIH must rely on the institutions and their researchers to comply with regulations, identify conflicts and enforce the policies to manage them. The NIH reviews the institutional reports and takes action when necessary. Only by engaging all stakeholders in the process can financial conflicts of interest be addressed and public trust in NIH-funded research maintained.

Sally J. Rockey
Deputy Director for Extramural Research National Institutes of Health

The trend of allowing the intrusion of hidden commercial interests in supposedly independent scientific investigations in the U.S. could be more prevalent elsewhere. Few other countries have the same openness in administration offered by the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

Jens Christian Jensenius
Århus University, Denmark

MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION

“The Alpinists of Evil,” by Michael Shermer [Skeptic], argues that atrocities such as those perpetrated by the Nazis can occur because our morals are modulated by identification with others around us.

I have misgivings about morals being modulated to allow for another kind of atrocity: that caused by nuclear weapons. Some argue that possessing such weapons is permissible under the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD)—in which using them would also result in the attacker's destruction—because doing so may prevent future conflicts. But if a nuclear power is attacked anyway, MAD has failed.

Kurt L. Becker
Durham, N.C.

SHERMER REPLIES: MAD is a game theoretical model in which both sides reach a Nash equilibrium, in which neither side has anything to gain by changing strategies. The concept has worked for 64 years.

MAD requires rational leaders who cherish life as much as we do in the West, and I am thus less confident about its effectiveness than I was before 9/11, given the belief on the part of suicide terrorists that rewards await them in the next life for their actions. Still, I'm optimistic, given the fact that a large number of countries that started nuclear programs eventually stopped.

My moral stand: I support Global Zero and the manifesto entitled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” signed, among others, by George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger (not exactly peaceniks). So there's hope.

ANALOG ACTUALITY?

David Tong's “The Unquantum Quantum” speculates that reality is fundamentally analog, not digital. If the history of quantum mechanics is any guide, I would say the answer has to be “both and neither.” What could be more discrete than a particle or continuous than a wave? Yet both and neither interpretations are true.

Andy Robertson
via e-mail

TONG REPLIES: The idea that an object is both a particle and a wave is more of a popular slogan than a good description of the math behind quantum mechanics. The wave function is a fundamental concept in quantum mechanics. At a deeper level, the lumpiness of particles emerges from this continuity.

CLIMATE FEEDBACKS

“The Winters of Our Discontent,” by Charles H. Greene, discusses how melting Arctic sea ice can cause harsh winters in the U.S. and Europe.

The negative Arctic Oscillation (AO) and negative North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) climate phenomena are described as associated with conditions allowing cold air to invade south. Yet shouldn't warm air then flow north? If so, is that another positive feedback mechanism contributing to rapid warming in the Arctic?

Ben Harding
Boulder, Colo.

GREENE REPLIES: The polar jet stream has waves in it, and their amplitude tends to be larger during negative AO and NAO conditions. When one part of a wave dips south to bring cold Arctic air to the lower latitudes, another part rises to the north to bring warm air to higher latitudes. Although that warm air may not typically get carried far enough north to directly affect Arctic sea ice melting and the ice-albedo feedback process, there are other processes associated with a wavier jet stream that could contribute to amplification of Arctic warming. The transport of extra water vapor farther north can have the following effects:

1. As an important greenhouse gas, the vapor can absorb outgoing infrared radiation (heat), leading to additional warming of the atmosphere.

2. It can condense to form heat-trapping clouds, which also enhance such warming.

3. Such condensation results in the release of latent heat, further warming the atmosphere.

In addition to these warming effects, a wavier jet stream is associated with the development of blocking patterns, stationary high-pressure systems that stall atmospheric circulation. During some recent summers, enhanced blocking over Greenland has altered wind patterns in a manner favoring the flow of ice out of the Arctic Ocean and into the North Atlantic. This loss of Arctic sea ice will have a similar effect on the ice-albedo feedback process as warming-induced ice melting. Thus, there are good reasons to think that the development of conditions favoring a wavier jet stream could enhance positive feedbacks for even more rapid warming in the Arctic.

CLARIFICATION

In discussing potential conflicts of interest of “employees” of the National Institutes of Health in “Is Drug Research Trustworthy?”, Charles Seife refers to special government employees, appointed by the NIH, who serve on its advisory committees.

ERRATUM

“Meat of the Matter,” by Ferris Jabr [The Science of Health], incorrectly states that the large intestine grew larger over the course of human evolution; it was the small intestine.

This article was originally published with the title "Letters."

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