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Science  26 Mar 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5973, pp. 1591-1593
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5973.1591

26 March 2010

Edited by Edward W. Lempinen

AAAS Annual Meeting

Science Leaders Urge New Effort To Strengthen Bonds with Public

Building a bridge. The San Diego Union-Tribune published a series of three commentaries from AAAS during the Annual Meeting in February.

SAN DIEGO—Public engagement is perennially a top issue for the global science and engineering community, but with political attacks against climate science escalating and polls reflecting a decline in public confidence, the issue has grown more critical. At the recent AAAS Annual Meeting, science leaders concurred that more effort and creativity are needed to meet the goal.

But at a press briefing on climate change, organized by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and AAAS, an eminent panel of science leaders made clear the complexity of the challenge. If science is based on reason and evidence, they asked, how should it respond when economic stress and a concerted campaign of distortion undermine the public’s belief in climate change and trust in science?

Lord Martin Rees

Climate change faces “special problems,” said Lord Martin Rees, the eminent cosmologist and president of the Royal Society. “It’s diffuse and international—you can’t do anything about it unless all nations move together. It’s also remote in time: The consequences will only impact seriously on the next generation, not us, which makes it very hard to get the public exercised on the need to do something.”

Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academies of Science and chair of the National Research Council, warned that rising public skepticism on climate change apparently has “spilled over into other kinds of science.”

The issue of public engagement was the central theme of the Annual Meeting, which convened here from 18 to 22 February under the banner “Bridging Science and Society.” In his invitation, AAAS President Peter Agre underscored the theme.

Building stronger bonds with the public requires “every scientist and engineer to make their work both beneficial and understandable, and ... society to discover again the excitement and hope that research and its findings offer,” said Agre, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “It is a call to action that resonates around the world.”

A workshop in science communication was offered to scientists and engineers at the meeting. Some three dozen special briefings were staged for corps of U.S. and international science journalists. Thousands of people attended Family Science Days, plenary addresses, and other free public events.

But researchers recently have noted signs of a strained relationship with the public on several important issues—climate and energy, embryonic stem cell research, and evolution.

Those and other issues were addressed in three commentaries written by Agre and prominent coauthors and published by the San Diego Union-Tribune during the meeting.

“In an era of incredible opportunities and profound problems, our nation can only thrive if decisions are shaped by a science-literate public and well-informed policymakers,” Agre wrote with Alan I. Leshner, the AAAS CEO and executive publisher of Science. “Those may be the defining challenges for our research enterprise in the 21st century.”

Some at the meeting focused on a more immediate challenge: responding to the leak or theft of hundreds of e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and the discovery of a handful of errors in the massive 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including one that misstated the speed at which Himalayan glaciers are melting.

Critics have cited the e-mails and the errors in broad attacks against the validity of climate change research. Recent polls show that, in a matter of months, public belief in human-caused climate change has dropped sharply.

Jane Lubchenco

Former AAAS President Jane Lubchenco, now head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters the errors were an “embarrassment” and a “wake-up call” for the IPCC.

Then-AAAS Chairman James J. McCarthy, who served as a co-chair of an IPCC working group that helped produce the panel’s 2001 report, noted that some unfavorable public opinion is likely linked to the nation’s economic distress. But the IPCC errors should have been caught, he said.

“Our institutions are not as nimble as they should be in acknowledging ... that we really do need to endeavor to make information more readily available and when errors occur, to correct them immediately and explain their origin,” McCarthy added at the AAAS briefing.

Cicerone agreed. “We have to address our fundamentals in any case as we continue to improve science,” he said. “So let’s do it, let’s introduce these improvements and ... hope it will set a new level of transparency and potential trust.”

International

S&T Policy Fellows Aid Haitian Recovery

A few weeks after Haiti’s devastating January earthquake, Allegra da Silva was on the streets of Port-au-Prince, interviewing people about latrines. Jay Graham was helping assess water and sanitation needs in the camps of the newly homeless. Adam Reinhart was planning for the day when Haitian farmers could use their trucks to bring mangoes to market instead of ferrying food aid to the battered capital.

Urgent needs. AAAS S&T Policy Fellows interviewed Haitians about clean water and sanitation after the January quake.

The current and former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, all working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, are seasoned scientists and engineers whose technical skills and policy experience made them valuable both in Haiti’s initial relief efforts and as the country shifts toward long-term recovery.

Scientists can “bring rigor and data” to understanding Haiti’s needs, said Graham, in his second year as an S&T Fellow. “This is disaster response, but it’s also an issue of strategically moving forward, and connecting what’s done in disaster relief with something larger and longer in scope.”

Launched in 1973, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships have sent more than 2000 scientists and engineers to work in Congress and nearly 20 executive branch agencies and departments. The efforts of those working in Haiti “are indicative of the skills that Fellows can offer by applying their knowledge in real-world situations to address challenges and bring about positive change,” said Cynthia Robinson, director of the Fellowships.

Da Silva, an S&T Fellow with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, came to Haiti as part of a USAID Rapid Environmental Assessment team. The team interviewed Haitians about urgent needs and ongoing challenges in coordinating relief efforts to provide clean water, garbage collection, and shelters.

She talked with people about everything from “flying latrines”—plastic bags used in lieu of toilets—to their congested tent cities made of wooden poles and bedsheets. “Lives come first,” said da Silva, “but we want to support ways in which the relief effort can mobilize resources with the least environmental impact and least negative impact on livelihoods.”

For Reinhart, Haiti is familiar territory; he visited twice before the earthquake to talk with farmers about roads, fertilizer, and soil erosion. The former S&T Fellow, now working on economic security issues with USAID’s Haiti Task Team, helped establish USAID’s WINNER program, which will invest $126 million over 5 years to strengthen Haitian agriculture.

In addition to the damage around Port-au-Prince, said Reinhart, “the earthquake has exacerbated existing infrastructure problems countrywide.” Refugees fleeing the capital have placed added strain on the infrastructure of rural areas and smaller cities.

Graham had one week to prepare after getting the call from his boss John Borrazzo—another former S&T Fellow—to join a USAID team planning water and sanitation solutions for burgeoning camps of displaced people in Port-au-Prince. Arriving a month after the quake, Graham found busy streets and markets—but the environmental health advisor also saw long-term water and sanitation needs that will require significant investments.

Scientists have much to offer in Haiti, but they have to conduct research in a way that doesn’t burden the relief effort, said Olga Cabello, a former S&T Fellow who now directs the International Development Seismology initiative at IRIS, a consortium of U.S. universities that supports the global collection and open exchange of seismological data.

IRIS is working with federal agencies, the United Nations, and universities on “recommendations that can be used to reconstruct the country and the community at every level,” said Cabello. “You do not want to reconstruct vulnerability—you’re rebuilding for resilience.”

Some of the researchers will return soon to Haiti to continue the job of recovery. “Everybody is working really long hours there—it was pretty intense,” said Graham, who put in 15-hour days during his first visit. “This work, I do believe in it. You can create the right incentives so people can organize themselves to solve problems.”

Science and Health

Personalized Medicine: How Physicians Fare

Doctors are already using genetic data to customize patients’ treatments, but they could soon be overwhelmed by logistical and legal issues arising from inexpensive genome screening, experts said at a colloquium cosponsored by AAAS.

Within the next two years, people will be able to get their entire genomes sequenced for less than $1000, the speakers said. But many doctors lack the tools to use this information, they cautioned, and could face malpractice suits if they ignore or misinterpret the data.

The $1000 screen “is a 10-mile-wide asteroid heading toward us,” said Hank Greely, a Stanford University law professor. “We don’t have a clue how we’re going to handle it.”

The conference, held 8 to 9 March and cosponsored by the Food and Drug Law Institute, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and the Mayo Clinic, was the third personalized medicine colloquium organized by AAAS in 2009–2010. The latest event offered a unique perspective on changes that may be in store.

Personalized medicine is “a very slow train,” said Lee Hartwell (who received the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine), in part because it relies heavily on a small number of genetic markers that predict disease.

Hartwell, codirector of the Center for Sustainable Health at Arizona State, said the risk of disease associated with these markers often isn’t large enough to help doctors. “I don’t have a lot of hope of taking your DNA sequence and predicting your disease susceptibility,” he said. “Family history is still a better predictor than that for most common diseases.”

Protein biomarkers are much more useful than genes for the doctor in intensive care who needs to know whether a drug is causing a patient’s kidneys to shut down, said Prasad Devarajan, the director of nephrology and hypertension at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. It’s a problem that’s “crying out for personalized medicine,” he said, since drug toxicity varies considerably from patient to patient.

For example, Devarajan has studied the protein NGAL, which is produced by injured kidneys. It can be detected in urine days before other signs of poisoning appear, he said, and that makes it a good example of how biomarkers can be used to tailor real-life treatments.

For Donald McAlpine, the trove of genetic data related to antidepressant medication is a “scouting report” that “makes prescribing more complex, but ultimately better.” McAlpine, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic, underscored the point by unfurling a scroll of genetic variations so long that it spilled over the edge of the podium. “All this information is hard for the busy clinician to manage,” he noted wryly.

But he and others suggested that the matter has serious ramifications. “Health care professionals are likely the most vulnerable to liability risks associated with personalized medicine,” said Gary Marchant, a professor of law and life sciences at Arizona State. Many physicians unfamiliar with genetics, he noted, may soon encounter patients who want their doctors to use genetic data in treatment decisions.

Kenneth Offit, chief of clinical genetic service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, led a 2003 study that found some women with mutations in the BRCA gene might reduce their risk of several cancers if their ovaries were removed. Eighteen months later, he said, “we saw the first malpractice suit” against a doctor who had not removed the ovaries of a patient with the mutations.

“This meeting revealed the still enormous gap between our ability to generate large volumes of data and to offer targeted treatments,” said Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law program. “The gap is the greatest challenge we face in achieving a level of personalized medicine that makes a real difference in health care.”

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