Notes on Science in a Mixed Market Economy

It's the Economy and the Election...

When US citizens wake up each morning wondering what they might have lost from their retirement accounts overnight, and what they inadvertently gained: i.e., one morning you learn you're part owner of a gargantuan mortgage business, the next you find yourself lassoed into a giant insurance collective -- no one knows what's next. W

When congress says they're reeling, they're "stunned" from the news delivered by the Fed, and when the press is overwhelmed with the ups and downs of an off-the-charts financial crisis and the back and forth poll numbers for McCain and Obama, we completely understand that you can't give science your usual riveted attention. With the Fed sucking up all these great liabilities and throwing the whole the "government needs to get out of the way of business" idea out the window -- or did we just all misunderstand what that really meant? -- we agree that reading up on monetary policy and investigating your own sense of what "full-scale panic" means might be your highest concern.

Sure the future of permafrost is interesting, cell culture research and science curriculum really important, and yes, these things should definitely claim our attention and that of all four candidates. But I get distracted wondering why GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin canceled more appearances in the last few days than the number of heavyweights the Republicans have pulled in to play defense in Troopergate. Palin's appearances have been canceled in Seattle & the Eastside, Virginia Beach, Dayton, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Tampa and Central Florida, Virginia Beach, Cincinatti, Jackson Hole, and all of California, as well as other places. Did McCain shoo her off-stage to be seldom seen and not heard? Is she cramming for a American Politics 101 final? Dental work? Did she she see a Russian tanker trawling the water out her dining room window? Sure the also "hot" Cindy McCain will replace Palin at some events, but there's got to be some disappointed Palin admirers.

Anyway, we tear ourselves away from those distractions (for the moment), in order to glance at some recent science-ish news.

Some Science Headlines

  • Thousands Tens of thousands of babies are sick and several have died from Chinese baby formula contaminated with melamine that compromises kidney function. This is the same chemical that was found in pet food imported from China to the U.S. last year. Officials in Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangladesh Yemen, Gabon, Burundi and Myanmar express concern that the tainted products might be available to consumers their countries also.

    Melamine has also be found in milk, yogurt and ice cream in China and Hong Kong. In 2007 the FDA found that US manufacturers of animal feed had also adulterated their product with melamine.

    Earlier this year, contamination of US supplies of heparin led the FDA to investigate and find myriad problems in the oversight process of the imported product. The agency discovered quality control issues, ranging from agency confusion about the real name of a Chinese plant that they failed to inspect; to the crude processing methods of the pigs intestine in family-style workshops". Experts admonished drug makers (after the fact) that the shortage of pigs in China due to blue-ear disease should have served as a red flag to the possibility of spiked heparin.

    Heads will certainly roll (figuratively if not literally) in China over the milk scandal, but an overall plan about how to prevent the next batch of fatalities has yet to emerge. In this instance, neither US and Canadian health agencies have found melamine contamination in their milk products.

  • In other news, the FDA has banned 31 drugs manufactured for export to the US by the Indian company Ranbaxy, based on an inspection of the company's Dewas plant that revealed cracked equipment, unsterilized and unclean preparation areas, inadequate procedure specification, and sporadic documentation of testing and cleaning.

    Yesterday, in response, Ranbaxy announced that it had hired Rudy Giuliani, last seen speaking on behalf of McCain at the GOP convention, to help lobby the US agency.

  • Also: Environmentalists cheered last year when Florida penned an agreement to buy land in the Everglades from the sugar industry. Interestingly, some of those who pressed hardest for the move were free-market conservatives and groups such as the Cato Institute. Sugar subsidies were instituted back in the 1930's, but the industry has since shrunk, and been monopolized by a few firms whose prices were kept artificially high with the subsidies, crowding out foreign competitors. The Fanjuls, an entrepreneuring family originally from Cuba, own one of two Florida companies that control most of the sugar consumed in the US. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a great article about the buyout, digging deeper into some of the issues complicating the deal, and questioning whether the company actually arranged for their land to be lucratively bought out by the state when its business began to suffer in the downturn.

  • In infectious disease news: The CDC estimates that 90,000 people die in the US each year from institution acquired infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Science reports this week that the "perfect storm" of antibiotic resistance and diminished reserves of medicines portends trouble The situation not only demands new drugs, according to Science, it requires new drug targets.

    The journal summarizes two recent studies that work in this direction. In the first, a group of scientists created a class of synthetic antibacterials effective against staphylococci including methicillin and multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus.(D. J. Haydon et al., Science 321, 1673 (2008)) The chemicals target specific proteins responsible for cell division. The August 22nd issue of Sciencecontained a report from another group who found a molecule that inhibits the gene which causes virulence and is turned on when certain conditions occur as the host responds to the infection. (D. A. Rasko et al., Science 321, 1078 (2008))

    On the prevention side of things, researchers at the University of Illinois found that tetracycline resistance genes can most likely be transferred from animal to animal in large hog containment areas into groundwater that feeds the public water supply. This could be one way that antibiotics used in feed to prevent infection and promote growth are adding to the overall problem of antibiotic resistance.

    And to get a sense of how far our understanding about microbes and mechanisms of infection, read Stanley Falkow from Stanford University's work, one of five scientists honored with a Lasker prize for his work on microbes and aspects of antibiotic resistance.

  • Iran has detained AIDS doctors Dr Kamiar Alaei and his brother Dr Arash Alaei since late June. (via Nature News) The two were known world-wide for working to prevent and treat the disease, and for tackling issues around HIV/AIDS in model ways, for a country which long denied that HIV/AIDS was anything but a "Western Disease". Their disappearance in late June has drawn global concern and calls from various physician groups for the Iranian President to answer questions about the whereabouts of the AIDS doctors. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled appearance at a UN meeting next week.

  • In other news: Both McCain and Obama have now submitted answers to questions about their science policy gathered by ScienceDebate2008. Some of their statements have been published here at the LA Times also. Several other science groups have submitted a document for both campaigns that lays out strategy for the incoming president on science and technology policy. Obama has named five science advisers who would serve his administration.

  • Now for some old news: Last May the Anchorage Daily News (ADN), Sarah Palin tried to obfuscate the contents of report written by state scientists that supported the federal scientists' decision of list polar bear as an endangered species. Palin wrote in an editorial in the New York Times January 5, 2008: "I strongly believe that adding them to the list is the wrong move at this time. My decision is based on a comprehensive review by state wildlife officials of scientific information from a broad range of climate, ice and polar bear experts." But the state's biologists agreed with the federal assessment. Palin is has also been criticized for her positions on global warming, oil and gas drilling, Exxon Valdez oil spill damages, and the Endangered Species Act. Why does this sound so familiar to me?

Oops, we've inadvertently gone full circle, escaping politics with science then allowing ourselves to get whooshed back into the politics. But why not wonder about Palin? We wonder what science policy would really be like in a McCain government, or in an Obama government? More like China? More like India? More of the same? Science and technology depends on politics and government. We may think we know what science and technology looks like in an "extreme" market economy, we've seen its penultimate apex during the Bush administration. 1 But lets not forget that we didn't anticipate Bush's actions. Now's the time to think beyond the rhetoric. I'm not sure I buy what many people insist -- that the candidates will be very alike on science issues. Now's the time wonder why McCain chose Palin if their philosophy is so different. Now's the time to learn more about Obama's science advisers.2

Perhaps we can have some government involved before the next giant catastrophe...? Before the energy investment bubble, the imminent infectious disease outbreak, the next bunch of poisonous products consumed by citizens because manufacturers successfully slipped drugs cut with toxic proteins past the FTC or the FDA, the next species that goes endangered, the growing storm of global warming, or the EPA....does whatever they do? There aren't too many science problems that won't be directly influenced by the new administration's policies.

1 The book Supercapitalism by Robert Reich was interesting.

2Though it's certainly nice to see he has any now.

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