More Science Talk
Stanford University biologist Sharon Long, a science advisor to the Barack Obama campaign, talks about science in the upcoming administration. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.sciam.com/report.cfm?id=election2008
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting November 5th 2008. I am Steve Mirsky. You may have heard that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. We will look at science policy under Obama, plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. I was at a science journalists' conference in Palo Alto, California last weekend. One of the speakers was Stanford University biologist Sharon Long. She was a science advisor to the Obama campaign. We sat down after her talk to discuss science in an Obama administration.
Steve: How did you wind up getting involved in the Obama campaign as a science advisor?
Long: Well, first I began supporting Senator Obama as a candidate in the autumn of 2007 and then, in the winter—just [l]
past winter perhaps, it was February or March—Harold Varmus came to Stanford to give a talk. And I saw him at his seminar and he asked me, "Are you doing anything related to politics?" I said, "Well, nothing expect that I support Senator Obama." So, he said, "I would really like to talk with you about something that I am getting started." And we spoke briefly after that, after his talk and he asked me if I would join the advisory committee because he was just starting to put it together and so since that time, I have been working with the committee.
How [Harold] Varmus, of course he is a Nobel laureate, who has been a primary science advisor to the Obama campaign. What are the major enterprises that an Obama administration would engage in right away in terms of science?
Long: A future Obama administration would take a multipronged approach to using science and technology in the national interest. The most important first goal is to restore the integrity of science advice given to our national leaders to ensure that decisions are informed by science that they are given excellent advice, impartial advice and that advice is heard.
Steve: That's very important obviously, but don't we need to address it from the other direction as well; and that is, there seems to me to have been less than a disinterest in science, almost this
is damn [disdain] for science in some quarters in the power structure lately, and that has led into the general population where you have large segments of the country that don't even respect science as an enterprise, as a vehicle for learning about things. So, don't we have to really address that issue and get people back on board? I am not saying everybody has to be wearing a Science is Great T-shirt. But don't we have to get back to a place where people just think that the quality of information that is applied by science is good?
Long: I agree with you and with many that science is not well understood and that the public or certain segments of the public may not understand the unique nature of reproducible, empirical study that science can provide and the predictive power that results from doing highly controlled, well analyzed scientific research. I believe that with respect to what our national leaders can do, setting the example of listening to science and respecting it can play a major role. That could make a big difference for the way in which science is regarded.
Steve: So, tell me some more about what's going to be coming down from the top in terms of science priorities and funding?
Long: In order to use science to address some of our big challenges, we need not just impartial and excellent advice that's informed by evidence rather than the ideology, but we need to assure that the nation has a vibrant and healthy science infrastructure. And we see that as requiring several elements. First, support by the federal government for basic research. Basic research is the foundation of so much that happens in terms of economic improvement, innovation in manufacturing and improvements in healthcare. I think the public understanding of basic research has languished because so much of it goes on invisibly and because, if we took any one part of it out, it would sound unlikely or unrelated to everyday life. But it is a fact that basic research has created a very large part of the economic growth of our society in the last fifty years. And investing in that kind of basic research is an important way for us to go forward even in these challenging economic times. In addition to research, a second aspect of assuring our nation's scientific health is to work on science education; which of course includes K through 12, as well as community colleges, university education both for science majors and non-science majors alike and for graduate students who are going to train either for careers in research or engineering or for careers in other areas including government where advanced training at science and methods of scientific thinking would be very helpful. So, I see education as the second important element. And third, the health of the nation's science in the future requires that we support the private sector. And Senators Obama and Biden, both are very supportive of making the kinds of changes in infrastructure, tax structure and
pattern [the patent] system that will encourage our great creative American scientists and engineers to be able to innovate, to bring those innovations to market, to create new jobs and to improve life for all of us.
Steve: It's very strange to me that in this anti-tax climate, the R and D tax credit has not been made permanent.
Long: Yes, and
that not being either active in politics or in economics, I can't tell you why that is, but I do think it will make a difference for having our companies able to plan for the long-term and I think many people feel that American companies need to be able to plan for a longer term than just the bottom line for the next quarter's earning reports, in order to carry out the kind of thorough innovative science research and engineering research that will actually lead to their companies' health and our nation's economic health in the future.
Steve: Another thing that might not have been too obvious during the campaign with the
tenure [tenor] of it at times, but an Obama administration also plans to do away with capital gains taxes in certain cases to promote science innovation.
Long: Yes, the Obama–Biden administration would eliminate all capital gains taxes on start-up and small businesses. This is a way of encouraging innovation and also
a job creation. Because, senator Obama believes that small businesses are so important and he understands the challenges that they face. He also proposes that he will provide health insurance companies with the new small business–health tax credit, that would help small businesses provide quality healthcare for their employees, and many technology start-ups would be in a situation where this will be extremely important. And both the tax and the healthcare assistance parts of the Obama plan, I think, would be really beneficial.
Steve: So, if Joe the Plumber's company should endeavor to create a new kind of flange there might be some economic breaks for them there?
Long: Well, possibly, but I think that they would have to be looking at their balance sheets and I am not an expert in that.
Steve: It's fine. You mentioned how it can sound strange to the public when a particular small bit of research is cherry-picked for exposition and I couldn't help to think about the statement that Governor Palin made where she denigrated fruit-fly research, which I found to be absolutely stunning. Could you just tell me for one thing why a fruit fly is so damn important and what was your reaction when you heard her make that statement?
Long: So, when Governor Palin criticized last week earmarks and wasteful spending, as an example she said to her audience, "Did you know that there is money in the federal government for fruit fly research? And it is even in Paris, I kid you not." So, the governor criticized the fact that federal government includes research funds for work on fruit flies in Paris, France. She then left it that saying, "I kid you not" and I suspect she got a very rousing response from her audience, but that cuts close to home for me in two ways. First, that particular project is actually an agricultural project. It's on a particular kind of fruit fly that infests the olive tree. For us in California, olive tree[s] and pests on olive trees are a big problem; it's a very important part of our agricultural economy and of course a wonderful tradition as well. The reason why the USDA has a project in France, the same way it does in many many other nations is that this is a kind of pest problem that France also deals with and they have a highly skilled lab facility. A small portion of our USDA's efforts to study this pest are in cooperation with this lab of experts in Paris, France. So, I think it was very disappointing that something so worthwhile and so close to the earth as helping all our farmers was picked on as an example of waste. I think that's a shame. Furthermore, if we were talking about the generic fruit-fly, the Drosophila fruit-fly that so many laboratories works on, it's doubly ironic that Governor Palin would have criticized that plan just a few weeks ago. A laboratory here in the United States was able to report a great advance in the study of a gene that may be influential and important for the understanding of autism, a condition that many of us hope will be greatly helped through research. This research was done on fruit flies right here in the United States and it's an example again of how basic research might sound funny if you pick on it, but it can have an amazing and wonderful effect on our nation's health in terms of people or in terms of our economy.
Steve: And I would also like to point out to listeners who maybe aren't familiar with genetic research and fruit fly research. If we wanted to, we could spend 300 hours probably talking about every particular discovery in molecular biology and biology in agriculture that has been made working with fruit flies. You could say the human genome project itself is an outgrowth of fruit fly research, couldn't you?
Long: Yes, I think that from the early part of [the] 20th century through the present, genetic research on fruit flies has provided us with some of the most important advances that we have had in the understanding of the nature of the gene and of how genes cause cells to grow, develop and change.
Steve: Yeah, and I didn't mean to spend five minutes picking on Governor Palin; I thought it was worth talking about this as an example of how you need to understand—as we just had to blow a fly off the table; it wasn't a fruit fly.
Long: It was a housefly.
Steve: It was a housefly that came to visit for a second, but it's just important to understand that anytime you pick out a particular piece of research for ridicule, it may sound ridiculous to the public when they don't have the context in which to place it; because these things are all pieces of a whole, you know? You have people working on sea urchins and it might sound ridiculous, but it's part of our understanding of development that may wind up having an impact on birth defect work in humans, and that's why this kind of basic research is so important.
Long: I would like to follow up what you were just saying by mentioning again the importance of science education not just for scientists, but for all of our citizens. Educating all Americans in science is important so that we can be a nation of engaged citizens; so that we and our fellow citizens can make critical decisions that our nation is going to be facing and that we face in our own lives as well. I think that leadership—as I mentioned earlier—leadership of paying attention to science [and] respecting what it has to say can make a big difference in the way that the nation as a whole looks at science. I will also just add something from my own point of view, which is, I believe most scientists, I don't believe that science has to drive every decision. Decisions have to be made using many many factors, but I want science advice to be heard, to be considered and to be represented honestly. And if a decision is made that is not exactly what science would have recommended, what I would hope to see is the acknowledgment that "The scientific advice said X. We are also considering these other factors which might be social or economic and for those reasons we are going to do X minus 3 or we going to do Y." That kind of acknowledgment of science is I think the proper
world[worth] for it to have in thoughtful leadership.
Steve: Rather than discarding the scientific input as not being part of the decision making process at all or denigrating it, in fact.
Long: Rather than discarding it, denigrating it or in some cases misrepresenting it. I think that that's a concern that has happened over the past number of years, that good science advice existed, but the parts of it that didn't happen to match a political or ideological goal were eliminated, so that the overall advice looked very different than the total picture should have been. As a scientist, my job is to give the very best scientific advice I can and to do so in a way that would be true no matter what context I was in. "This is really what I think, based on everything I know, this is the best advice I can give you." But to realize there is a give and take, other scientists who have done just as much reading and research might have a different idea, and that's the best way in which I think policy can be made. My impression of Barack Obama is that he is a person who can listen to many points of view and take in more than one idea, be thoughtful about it and bring it together. That appeals to me as a scientist because that's what we have to do as well, to be aware that there are complexities, to seek after knowledge but to be respectful of the limits of our knowledge as well. I hope that with Barack Obama, we would have that kind of leader.
Steve: You want to talk for just a couple of minutes about your particular expertise? You mentioned that it's in crop research in part and the specifics of what the administration plans to do in those areas?
Long: My own area of research is on the symbiosis between beneficial soil bacteria and plants in [the] legume family, and this is familiar to many because it's the basis for crop rotation. Plants such as beans, clover, alfalfa—which is what I study—or soybean[s] are members of a plant family that have the unique ability to host beneficial bacteria in their roots. Now because of the bacteria and because they have the bacteria in their roots, these plants are actually able to flourish using nitrogen that the bacteria convert from a form that's in the air into a molecule that the plants make protein out of. That means that these plants don't need nitrogen fertilizer. This is the reason why, for example, the Native Americans had the practice of planting a little mound with squash, beans and corn. The beans didn't just produce a great seed, they also provided nitrogen nourishment for themselves and for the little mound of plants that were around them. Likewise crop rotation has been used in the ancient world, [in the] Mediterranean and in many other cultures throughout the world. That is important because crop rotation of that kind is a cornerstone of sustainable agriculture. And my work is very basic. I don't really study the applications in the field, but I do work on the question of how bacteria and plants can recognize each other in a highly specific way and how they can come together in a complex process so that the bacteria are benefiting the plant by providing them with the nitrogen that they need to make lots of protein, and in return, the plant, which can carry out photosynthesis, is able to provide sugars and other energy to the bacteria. So each partner benefits from the exchange. That's my great love in research. Whether that will be addressed in particular in the science plans of the future administration isn't known to me, but it is something that relates to energy, to productivity, to self-sustainability. So I hope that along with all of my colleagues in the United States who study this, I hope we'll all be able to make application and try to make our case for doing good science and create some benefits from that.
Steve: Some enlightened self-interest for you then to be involved here.
Long: Well, I think the most important self-interest for me in this is as a citizen—that I see what science can do. I am also very respectful of the limits of science. But I think that the kind of impartial advice that scientists can give can be very very helpful to the country as it faces huge challenges, and I'll have to be honest: If I had been asked by any of the other campaigns to provide science advice, I would have said yes to that as well. As it happens this campaign aligns my heart with my expertise, but I would have wanted to help science have an appropriate say and be of appropriate help to our nation in whatever way we move forward.
Steve: For more on science in the next administration, check out the In-Depth Report on the SciAm Web site called "Science and the U.S. Election".
Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Scientists have cloned a wooly mammoth.
Story number 2: The World Toilet Summit is taking place this week.
Story number 3: Women have a more diverse population of bacteria on their hands than men do.
And story number 4: At least 20,000 people die from snake bites each year.
Time is up.
Story number 4 is true. Snakes kill at least 20,000 worldwide annually. Four hundred thousand people are poisoned by snakes each year. That's according to research published in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine. Most deaths occur in poor regions, and the researchers say that because information may not reach medical authorities, it is possible that over 90,000 people actually die from snake bites each year. And you are worried about sharks.
Story number 3 is true. Women's hand bacteria is more diverse than the bacteria found on men's hands. That's according to work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Women's skin is less acidic than men's, which may allow more kinds of bacteria to flourish. Other possible cause is skin thickness, hormones, differences in sweat and oil production and the use of moisturizers or cosmetics.
And story number 2 is true. The three-day World Toilet Summit is taking place in Macau. The goal is to find ways to get clean sanitation to the two and a half billion people who do not have access to hygienic toilets worldwide. For more info, check out the November 05, 2008 episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.
All of which means that story number 1, about scientists cloning a wooly mammoth is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. But what is true is that Japanese researchers have successfully cloned mice whose bodies were frozen for as long as 16 years. They reported the work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The technique may eventually allow frozen remains to be the source of cloned mammoths, mastodons and Ted Williams.
Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Visit SciAm.com for all the latest science news, blogs and videos. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.