Archive for the ‘Author: McNie, E.’ Category

Nano Concerns and the Production of Useful Scientific Information

November 30th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Nanotechnology holds great promise for industry, business, medicine and more. As government and private industry ramp up support for nanotechnology research and development (about $1billion from the Feds last year alone), one has to wonder… what do we know about the safety of nanotechnology?

In the November 18 issue of Science, Robert Service reports on the truly amazing possibilities in treating cancer with nanotechnology. How’s this for cool: gold-covered nanoparticles that attach to cancer cells and then heat up to more than 40C, cooking the cancer cells to death! Stay tuned for the remake of the Incredible Journey… The article concludes with a brief discussion on the toxicity of nanoparticles, stating, “environmental health and safety agencies around the world continue to grapple with how best to regulate these novel materials.” Despite the promise of nanotech (indeed, it’s already being used in some products), research and development should proceed with one eye on potential benefits, and the other eye on possible harms. We should avoid moving so quickly that we find ourselves with the nanotech equivalent of asbestos, MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether… a gasoline additive now being phased out due to contamination in of groundwater and uncertainty regarding its health effects in large doses), or even worse, the dreaded ‘grey goo’.


What kind of leadership does FEMA need?

September 9th, 2005

Posted by: admin

The Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu reports that “Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001.” The Post continues, “Patronage appointments to the crisis-response agency are nothing new to Washington administrations. But inexperience in FEMA’s top ranks is emerging as a key concern of local, state and federal leaders as investigators begin to sift through what the government has admitted was a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.”

Before this report becomes another dividing line between ‘Bush bashers’ and ‘Bush defenders’, we need to take a close look at what kind of leadership is necessary to run an emergency agency and whether political patronage has a place in such agencies. My answer is that both experienced emergency responders and political appointees are necessary, but ideally, those top leaders should be both.

First question: does emergency response require ‘different’ leadership skills than, say, leadership of other departments such as USDA, HUD, EPA, etc.? I argue yes. A large component of effective leadership (some may say all) is making good decisions. A lot of decision making at agencies occurs in the framework of formal processes: identify the problem, gather information, allow for public comment, explore options, make decision, etc. Obviously the process is not perfect, linear or surgical as some who read this will be quick to note. My point, however, is that there tends to be an unfolding of the decision process that is radically different from the decision making process, hence leadership, required in emergency and emergency response situations, particularly on a temporal scale. Decision making process become truncated, intelligence may be incomplete, and multiple problems demand solutions almost simultaneously. The importance of situational leadership (well articulate by Hershey) and the leaders’ ability to make decisions given the requirements of the particular emergency context cannot be overstated. Effective leadership in ‘crisis’ situations often requires years of training and experience to hone those qualities that separate capable leaders from those who are out of their league.


What would Moby Dick think?

June 24th, 2005

Posted by: admin

An article published yesterday in the BBC News states that “the International Whaling Commission has condemned Japan’s plan to increase the scale of its catches in the name of science”. The debate over what constitutes enough whales for scientific inquiry (look here for info about the IWC scientific permits) is another good example of what happens when science is used as a proxy for what is essentially a political, economic, gastronomic and values debate.

Since the moratorium on commercial whaling was established in 1986, countries have been allowed to “kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research” according to guidelines that are established by each member nation. For example, the current 2004 permit for Japan allows for “220 common minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 sei and 10 sperm whales” to be killed in the name of scientific research. This is in addition to another research program in which “it takes 440 minke whales from the southern ocean each year”. Japan is now proposing to introduce a new research plan that would boost the minke harvest up to 935, and fin whales and humpbacks up to 50 in Antarctic waters.

Again, according to the BBC News, 63 scientists working with the IWC condemned Japan’s proposal for two reasons. First, results from the first 18 years of research have not yet been evaluated. Second, with the new proposal, Japan’s catch would approach commercial levels that were in place before the 1986 moratorium was established. Still other critics are calling for non-lethal methods of research.

But this isn’t about scientific research done in the name of resource management.


Beware of Snake Oil Salesmen

June 20th, 2005

Posted by: admin

I recently received a letter from the Stem Cell Research Foundation which asked me to make a donation in order to support grants that, according to their website, support “innovative basic and clinical research”. I have several problems with the SCRF’s solicitation efforts, and in fact, find the letter to be rather … distasteful.

First, the SCRF plays fast and loose with the purpose of basic research, which is essentially curiosity-driven and free from consideration of use, with solutions, cures and remedies. While they get the notion of basic research right: “We can’t know what lies ahead and we must be realistic!” they unfortunately slip into sales-pitch-mode with allusions of future cures for stroke, heart disease “and for a huge array of other diseases and conditions”. Furthermore, they say, “…the only problem with stem cell therapy is that it isn’t progressing fast enough!” Aha! So if I donate money to support innovative basic research then stem cell therapies will be developed sooner. The problem is that there is no guaranteed connection between the basic research the foundation supports, and any future pay-off. And according to my layperson’s eye, most of the current research seems to be basic in nature. (I’m open to correction if I’ve read it wrong). But as the science community knows all too well, at least as far as Federal funding is concerned (see this posting), in order to compete for limited resources and get funded, promises of future pay-offs and benefits have to be made. Has the SCRF learned to play the game, and if so, is this even a game that is appropriate to play?

Second, the letter has a rather distasteful overtone that reminds one of snake-oil salesmanship. Note the following sentences which are obviously geared toward vulnerable populations: “Imagine the hope this research would bring to the cancer patient who wants to see a favorite grandchild graduate – the stroke sufferer who would give anything to hold someone’s hand – the burn victim desperately in need of new skin cells”, and even worse: “If you know someone suffering from a disease who feels life is leaking away along with all hope of aid, I urge you to pass on this exciting news to bolster their flagging spirits”. Step right up, Grandma. I know you’re on a fixed income and time is running out, but could you spare $50 to support some basic research?