Tuesday, January 30, 2007

lawnscience question #3

So the New York Times has an article about a new directive signed by Bush, stating that each federal agency create (unless they already have one) an office to supervise the development of rules and documents providing guidance to regulated industries. The idea is that each federal agency must identify “the specific market failure” or problem that justifies the rule. This office is supposed to be run by a political appointee.

Now such executive supervisory approaches aren't new. I mean, under Clinton's Executive Order 12,866, the White House Office of Management and Budget got to review whether rules are “necessary” and encouraged consideration of “distributional impacts” and “equity.” One of the differences here is that it expands the supervisory approach to agency guidances as well as rules.

Guidances, though, were not always as subject to extensive political review, even though some are. But many are fairly technical, involving questions of scientific application--transscience questions (involving some normative component), yes, but still on the scale of things less political.

My interest is in how staff scientists should proceed under this regime, knowing that their determination that a rule is necessary must be based on the identification of "market failure." Does this mean becoming versed in economics, as opposed to the physical and health sciences? Does this mean working with economists (and if so, where would the money come from?) A general question, yes, but the sort of thing an administrative law professor wonders about.

Friday, January 26, 2007

natural lawn movement

The founder of The Cook's Garden, Shephard Ogden, has been selected as the new executive director for SafeLawns.org, an organization dedicated to promoting natural lawn care. If he does as good a job with Safe Lawns as with The Cook's Garden (I should admit my bias by disclosing that I've been a customer of theirs for quite awhile---check out their awesome seed selection!), then we should be seeing at least a *bit* of decrease in pesticide and artificial fertilizer use in suburbs everywhere, and more awareness about environmentally friendly gardening techniques. Or so I hope!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

lawnscience question #2

Today's lawnscience question is a more general one, though one that comes up over and over again in the science policy literature: What duties do researchers have to focus their attention on issues that society considers pressing? The alternative is to look more at issues that either the researcher herself feels are important, interesting, or necessary (i.e., the "pure science" question) or the researcher's funders feel are important, interesting, or necessary. Philip Kitcher tackles this problem in Science, Truth, and Democracy, and tries to come up with a workable and principled medium, but I'm interested in seeing what people think in general.

Friday, January 19, 2007

can your lawn keep your home warm?

The Guardian has an article about how "[a]n environmentally friendly and low-cost heating system could drastically reduce the nation's reliance on fossil fuels." The idea is to use domestic heat pumps to absorb heat out of the ground (obtained during the day from the sunlight) and pump it into one's home for household use. Sound futuristic and wacky to you? Apparently in Sweden, 97% of all new buildings are powered these pumps.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

two blurbs on science abuse/ethics

Two things: First, the International Herald Tribune has an editorial entitled Warning! Rising levels of science abuse.

Second, the The Scientist has a white paper entitled Promoting Integrity in Science Journals. In it, they try to establish clear roles for authors, reviewers, sponsors, and other people in the scientific publication process. They also attempt to suggest ways for editors to deal with allegations of misconduct and to correct the literature.

first lawnscience question

So let's talk about the case of Ashley, the "pillow angel". You all probably recall the story: she's a severely disabled girl whose doctors approved a growth-stunting treatment in order to keep her small. The idea is that this would make it easier--or indeed possible--for her parents to take care of her.

What gets overlooked in some of the blurbs is that this decision was approved by the hospital's ethics committee. Which brings to mind a question I've talked about a lot with my own brother, an internist: what role is there--or should there be--for a doctor in making these ethical determinations? My brother's approach is that for every decision within a certain "grey area," you ask the hospital ethics committee (which all hospitals have, as I understand), and if they approve, then you're good to go--and indeed, you may *have* to apply such treatment in order to fulfill your Hippocratic oath. My question is whether there's any room for the individual doctor to interject his or her own ethical understandings. Is the only room for it at the stage where a doctor decides whether or not to go to the ethics committee? Or is there room to question the determination of the committee itself?

My apologies if this is all worked out in the medical ethics literature--I'm kind of new to this!

new pharmacetical trade group ethics code

So the the Salem News has an article about how the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations--a trade group of the nation's largest pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer--has revised its code of ethics for its companies. Under this new code, their representatives must refrain from giving doctors money or other gifts (such as ski weekends or various hotel stays) that might influence their prescription choices. But it doesn't bar representatives from these companies from giving gifts related to doctors' job duties (like stethoscopes) or place any prohibitions on direct-to-consumer advertising.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Again, because I am slow, I'm pointing you all to a post by Jonathan on the Volokh Conspiracy about the National Research Council's criticisms of the Office of Management and Budget's new guidelines for risk assessments conducted by federal agencies. The full report is here, but there's a shorter press release. The NRC report points to several problems with OMB's plan, including
  • having internal inconsistencies,
  • inappropriately suggesting separate risk assessment approaches for general v. "influential" assessments, given the difficulty of determining what assessment might be influential at the outset,
  • having too limited an evaluation of what constitutes an "adverse health effect,"
  • erroneously focusing on human health risk assessments while neglecting technological risk assessments,
  • providing risk assessment standards that are "beyond the state of the science", and
  • failing to address risk communication (as compared to the a proposal by the European Commission) and sensitive populations.

So OMB's plan is currently on hold. (Thanks to my research assistant VS, who forwarded this to me.)

Friday, January 12, 2007

epa recommendations on safe levels of percholorate in water

I'm slow on this, but the Integrity of Science blog has a post about a special report in the Oregonian about the efforts of the White House and Pentagon to hinder the EPA's promulgation of recommendations for safe levels of perchlorate for water. The Pentagon's interests in this is that percholorate is a component of rocket fuel, and the Pentagon may wish to be shielded from cleanup costs.

comments requested on human-animal hybrid research

The UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (the UK's regulator regarding fertility treatment and embryo research) is requesting a public consultation on human-animal hybrid research, initiated by two research groups' requests for licenses to mix human and aminal cells to create stem cell lines. As quoted from the HFEA press statement: “We need to work closely with the scientific community, the various interest groups and the public to develop a proper understanding of the different types of science that hybrid and chimera research would involve. We can then decide the appropriate approach to take in each case.”

east asian science cooperation agreement

According to an article in the (China) People's Daily Online, ministers from China, Japan, and South Korea have met to discuss a cooperative approach towards developing science and technology in their region. Their joint statement states that China, Japan and South Korea will establish a trilateral science and technology cooperation mechanism.

an inconvenient truth too political?

The Seattle Post Intelligencer has an article about the decision of the Federal Way (a community between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington) School Board to place a moratorium on the showing of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. The decision was made after one parent complained, stating, "The information that's being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is. ... The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD."

lawn science

Courtesy of Maureen, there's a relatively recent book out called Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn by Hannah Holmes, a science writer. It covers her year of studying the ecosystem of her unfertilized and barely mowed lawn, examining the critters and plants that live there. It sounds really fun!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

EC project proposes guidelines for scientists' communicating with the media

There are many sides to the problem of transmitting scientific knowledge from scientists to the public. There's miscommunication on the part of the media, for example, exaggerating scientific findings for effect, or creating controversy where such controversy may be minimal, or at least less than portrayed. Then there's miscommunication on the part of scientists, describing results in ways that are either unclear, or with terms that have drastically different meanings for laypeople.

A European Commission FP6 project called MESSENGER ("Media, Science, and Society - Engagement and Governance in Europe"), it looks like, is trying to address these communications problems. It's doing so through a series of guidelines for scientists to attempt to follow in communicating with the media. In particular, the guidelines focus on the communication of risks and benefits associated with particular actions. But it also provides "summary checklists" (consisting of questions to remember, internally) for media professionals to evaluate and convey scientific research, and for scientists to interact with the media.

Many of these are straightforward, and I've seen them in other books for scientific communication. But it's put together in a nice, concise way, and also provides journalists and scientists with a brief perspective of the "other" parties. And they've also put together a Layperson's guide to decoding science and health stories. It should be interesting to see whether and how these guidelines get used.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

thanks, ann!

Thanks, Ann, for linking to this blog!

land dispute resolution and science

A recent article in The Hindu describes how a Commission on Farming in India has requested that the national and state governments consult with the scientific community on zoning. In particular, the Commission suggests applying current mapping technology to distinguish between prime and non-prime lands. It should be interesting to see if this suggestion is pursued, and if so, how.

new study on mercury hotspots

Two new studies on mercury hotspots by the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation identify fourteen mercury hotspots (five known, and nine suspected) in the northeastern area of North America. The studies--published in BioScience, suggest that one of the causes are coal-fired power plants in the United States. Expect these studies to come up in both current environmental and health litigation surrounding these areas, as well as in upcoming permit approvals for new power plants or power-plant expansions, as well as litigation surrounding permit approvals.

coverage of scientific bias in regulation

The Monterey Herald has an article covering a new systematic analysis by Lenard Lesser et al. of scientific studies of beverages.[*] The researchers of this study found that beverage studies were four to eight times more likely to reach positive conclusions about the health effects of a beverage when that study was industry sponsored. This has implications not only for approvals by the Food and Drug Administration, but also for the Environmental Protection Agency, given what some have observed to be an increasing reliance on industry-sponsored studies.

Also, the Hartford Courant has an editorial: Gagging Science With Politics, decrying some of the procedural changes made in the way the EPA will set pollution standards (moving from staff scientists performing independent reviews of recent research towards scientists "teaming up with their politically appointed bosses to review . . . 'policy-relevant' science").

[*] The Public Library of Science, which publishes the peer-reviewed open-access journal that published Lesser's study, also has a "Perspective," entitled Does Industry Sponsorship Undermine the Integrity of Nutrition Research?, commenting on this study.

climate change news

The New York Times has an interesting article about a recent news release issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stating that 2006 was the warmest year for the 48 contiguous states since regular temperature records began in 1895. Most notably, the release states, “A contributing factor to the unusually warm temperatures throughout 2006 also is the long-term warming trend, which has been linked to increases in greenhouse gases." Watch for this release to be cited often in the debate over greenhouse gases.

On a related note, Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers, is urging the electronics industry to offset the environmental effects of the energy consumed by their devices.

On yet another related note, Governor Schwartzenegger has asked state regulators to require petroleum refiners and gasoline sellers to cuts, by ten percent, greenhouse gas emissions associated with petroleum production and use. The plan is innovative in that it incorporates lifecycle analysis, looking not only at the emissions associated with the use of the fuel, but also with the production.

As an aside, according to the article, Governor Schwartzenegger urged the legislators "to encourage the free market to overthrow the old order." This brings to mind the competing visions of the free market (and I'm even talking in terms of definitions, not norms, here). Schwarzenegger's plan involves mostly promoting the production of alternative fuels. Some might argue, though, that any government interference (including promotion of one product over another) constitutes a perturbation of the "free market". It seems that Schwartzenegger has a different definition.

probable changes in kansas science curricula

With the change in the composition of the Kansas State Board of Education towards more moderate and liberal members, some of the earlier curriculum standards are being reversed. These earlier standards generated much controversy--and were opposed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association--by including a series of criticisms of evolution into the standard science curricula. Anyway, it looks like the board members are going to take up the science curriculum standards again in February, with an eye towards changing them.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

new book on toxic torts, plus related conference

Carl Cranor's new book, Toxic Torts: Science, law, and the Possibility of Justice is the theme for a conference at UC Riverside examining human exposure to toxins in the environment. The book looks fascinating, and the conference seems to bring together not only scientists and some jurists, but also philosophers of science.

Monday, January 08, 2007

first post

The blog itself will probably only become active very slowly, as I am still prepping for classes and finishing up an article. Plus I've missed the boat for posting about the new FDA preliminary decision that food from cloned animals is safe for human consumption or about the decision of the parents of a severely disabled girl to limit her growth so that they can care for her more easily or about the new study suggesting an additional source of stem cells for therapy.

But still! Welcome! Most days, I'll write about and link to articles on law and science. On Tuesdays, I'll pose a law and science ethical dilemma---a question of "lawnscience"---for discussion. On Fridays, I'll post a fun link about lawn science.