Around the World
- 1 - Jiangxi province, China
- Threat of H10N8 Surfaces
- 2 - Brussels
- Researchers Lobby for Data Access
- 3 - New Haven, Connecticut
- Drug Company Joins With Yale to Share Data
- 4 - Sydney, Australia
- Reef Sludge-Dumping Approved
- 5 - Washington, D.C.
- Farm Bill Boosts Research, Creates Foundation for USDA
- 6 - Bethesda, Maryland
- NIH, 10 Drug Companies Partner to Study Diseases
Jiangxi province, China
Threat of H10N8 Surfaces
China's gallery of bird flu rogues continues to grow—and the latest addition is making experts shudder. So far only two human cases of H10N8 have been reported, but health officials warn that the strain has pandemic potential.
The virus was first isolated in December in southeastern Jiangxi province from a 73-year-old woman who succumbed to the virus. In a 5 February report in The Lancet, Chinese researchers note that the novel strain binds to avianlike receptors in human lungs—a feature thought to make H5N1 bird flu so deadly—and has a mutation that could make it highly infectious in people. A second H10N8 case in Jiangxi last week "is of great concern," says team member Mingbin Liu of the Nanchang Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in that it means "the H10N8 virus has continued to circulate and may cause more human infections."
The unsettling development comes as infections from another new strain, H7N9, are piling up in China.
Researchers Lobby for Data Access
Proposed E.U. laws protecting data privacy threaten essential health research, a coalition of more than 40 European science organizations wrote in a 29 January statement. Led by the U.K. Wellcome Trust, the organizations have launched a lobbying effort that urges E.U. lawmakers to reject proposed rules limiting researchers' access to patient data.
The proposal would, in many cases, flatly prohibit the use of personal data in research without specific patient consent. An earlier version allowed some access to data without specific consent if the project received approval from an ethics committee and strict confidentiality safeguards were in place. But amendments introduced in October narrowed the exceptions for researchers. If those stand, the groups argue, they would make valuable epidemiology and public health research impossible. The European Parliament is expected to vote on the measure in the spring, and it must also receive approval from the Council of Ministers.
New Haven, Connecticut
Drug Company Joins With Yale to Share Data
In an unusual partnership, Johnson & Johnson will work with Yale University to make raw data from its clinical trials available to researchers. The company will share its data with the Yale University Open Data Access Project (YODA), which will in turn "review requests from investigators and physicians seeking access to anonymized clinical trials data," the company wrote in a press release last week. YODA's team will then decide which researchers can access the information for their own studies.
The company's pharmaceutical products include pills for acid reflux, schizophrenia, pain, and birth control, among many others. The data to be shared with YODA go well beyond study design and results, and include de-identified information on every volunteer. YODA is led by Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist who has long pressed for more data access in clinical research. http://scim.ag/JJshares
Reef Sludge-Dumping Approved
The Australian agency that manages the Great Barrier Reef last week paved the way for development of one of the world's largest coal ports off the Queensland coast by approving the dumping of up to 3 million cubic meters of dredge spoils inside the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scientists predict the project will harm the sensitive ecosystem by smothering corals and seagrasses and exposing marine mammals and other organisms to toxic substances.
After federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt signed off on the venture last month, critics had hoped the agency would take a dimmer view. Roughly 240 Australian scientists have signed a letter of protest, which points to environmental damage from the 2010 to 2011 dredging south of Gladstone Harbor. In a 31 January press statement, Bruce Elliot, the Marine Park Authority's biodiversity manager, said that the authority acknowledges the concerns of scientists and would support an alternative option should North Queensland Bulk Ports Corp. propose one. http://scim.ag/_sludge
Farm Bill Boosts Research, Creates Foundation for USDA
Food and agricultural research advocates are celebrating the passage of the long-delayed "Farm Bill," which will provide $600 million for science over 5 years and kick-start a new fundraising campaign for research. The controversial $956 billion bill, which the U.S. Senate approved this week, sets national agricultural policy while providing nutritional benefits to the poor and subsidies to farmers.
The bill makes several changes: Research on so-called specialty crops, including fruits, nuts, and vegetables, will receive $80 million annually over 5 years—a 74% increase—while a biofuels program previously worth $23.6 million a year has been reduced to a total of $12 million. It also creates a nonprofit Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research as a new way to raise funds for science. The foundation is modeled on similar charities that benefit the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It will get up to $200 million in federal funds, to be matched by outside grants. http://scim.ag/farmbill14
NIH, 10 Drug Companies Partner to Study Diseases
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week unveiled what it called an unprecedented partnership with 10 drug companies aimed at finding new treatments for Alzheimer's, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. NIH and the companies, including giants such as Eli Lilly and Sanofi, will each provide about half of the $230 million in total funding over 5 years to the Accelerating Medicines Partnership. Patient groups and the Foundation for the NIH will also participate. They will build on recent discoveries of genes that predispose to disease by pinning down which proteins involved are most promising as drug targets. "[T]his challenge is beyond the scope of any one of us and it's time to work together," said NIH Director Francis Collins in a statement.
A set of pilot projects will openly share data with the research community. One will build a Web portal for genetic and clinical data on patients with type 2 diabetes. Another will analyze tissue samples for insight into the biology behind arthritis and lupus. http://scim.ag/AccelMed
Science's news team will be reporting from this year's AAAS Meeting in Chicago. For breaking news, live chats, and a new video series—"What Is the Coolest Science Fact You Know?"—check out our daily coverage at http://scim.ag/AAAS14
Scientists in Mexico City last week described the dwindling of a natural wonder: Monarch butterfly colonies now cover just 0.67 hectares of Mexican forest—the smallest swath of land since data collection began in 1993 and a 44% drop from last year's previous record low. The paltry figure highlights the uncertain fate of the monarch's 4000-kilometer migration between their U.S. and Canada breeding grounds and their winter home in Mexico.
Experts lay much of the blame on the decline of milkweed plants in the U.S. Midwest. Mexico must "energetically demand" that the U.S. reform its agricultural policy with an eye toward preserving milkweed, says Omar Vidal, director general of WWF Mexico, which administers the winter colony count. Meanwhile, midwesterners attempting to help the monarchs often plant the wrong milkweed variety, the tropical Asclepias curassavica, which doesn't die back in winter and may eliminate the monarchs' need to migrate. http://scim.ag/_monarch
By the Numbers
20 million +—Global cancer cases predicted to occur in 2025, up from an estimated 14.1 million in 2012, largely due to adoption of an industrialized country lifestyle, according to a World Health Organization report.
$6.1 billion—Result of Columbia University's 2006 to 2013 capital campaign, which set a new record for Ivy League fundraising.
The Nose Behind the Data
Linda Gormezano got a lot of media attention last month with her finding that polar bears are shifting their diets, but one member of her research team wasn't talking to the press: her scat-finding dog, Quinoa. Responding to the command Búscalo!—Spanish for "find it"—the male Dutch shepherd has sniffed out more than 1500 piles of polar bear scat from the southern reaches of the Hudson Bay. Gormezano, now a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, analyzed the droppings to discover that the bears are now eating more snow geese and have added caribou and goose eggs to their diets.
Quinoa was just 6 months old when his collaboration with Gormezano began. She wanted a noninvasive way to study foraging behavior of large mammals and knew that others had trained dogs to find grizzly bear scat, floating killer whale poop, and even particular endangered plants. Quinoa's breed made him an ideal choice: agile, an astute sniffer, and more interested in playing than in food. Gormezano got polar bear and other animal poop from local zoos to teach Quinoa the difference. When he finds the right stuff, he sits and waits for her to come play tug of war or ball as his reward. Polar bears nearby don't seem to faze him, Gormezano says, although the noise from the rifle she uses to scare them off gets him riled up. Now off-duty for the season, Quinoa spends a lot of time sleeping and, she says, "he's enjoying the snow."
Japan Prize Honors Research on Hardware and Histones
The 2014 Japan Prizes, announced last week, recognize advances in semiconductors and epigenetics. The electronics, information, and communication prize went to Yasuharu Suematsu, an honorary professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, for conceiving and developing the semiconductor lasers at the heart of the optical fiber networks that now carry voice and data communications around the globe. "The internet would not have been possible without this technology," said computer scientist Hideo Miyahara, chair of the communication prize selection committee.
David Allis, of Rockefeller University in New York City, will receive the life science prize for showing how histones, proteins that form a core around which DNA winds in cells, contribute to the regulation of gene expression. Each laureate will receive a certificate, a commemorative gold medal, and approximately $481,000 at a ceremony in Tokyo in April. The Japan Prize categories change each year within broadly defined fields of science and technology. http://scim.ag/Japan14
Last week, Chad Jenkins, a Brown University robotics scientist who votes as an independent, gave a TED-style pep talk to Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives at their 3-day retreat. He described how Henry Evans, a mute quadriplegic in northern California, connects with the world using a personal robot and a quadrotor drone steered with head movements that Jenkins programmed.
Q:How did the lawmakers react?
C.J.:Most of their questions were about how Henry lives his life and if that was really him on the monitor. It was great to see their interest in the technology.
Q:Is there anything else you wanted to get across?
C.J.:Henry is an amazing story of someone whose life has been turned around through investments in basic research. I don't think you have to say it. You just hope they connect the dots.
Q:Was there a political aspect to your talk?
C.J.:My political radar isn't sharp enough. But I suspect there will be some followup. I'd love to spread the word about this technology.
The Mountaintop Witness
- Erik Stokstad
Margaret Palmer started out just studying streams. She's ended up in court, passionately defending them from coal mining.
Once again, Margaret Palmer was squaring off against a lawyer for a coal company. "I don't mean to pick a fight with you," the attorney said as he cross-examined the academic ecologist, lobbing questions designed to fluster Palmer and raise doubts about her credibility. But even when he suggested her conclusions were shaped by ideology, not data, she remained composed. "Well," she said, "I'll be happy to answer any questions you have about the method."
The stakes were high in the encounter, which unfolded before a federal judge in a West Virginia courtroom last December. Three environmental groups had sued a pair of coal companies, claiming that pollution from their "mountaintop removal" strip mines was harming nearby streams. A victory by the green groups could set a legal precedent, sparking new lawsuits against the controversial mining method.
To bolster their case, the groups had recruited Palmer, a stream ecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, to join the legal fray as an expert witness. Her help was considered a huge asset: As a result of research publications, legal testimony, and policy work, the 58-year-old scientist has become perhaps the highest profile scientific opponent of companies involved in mountaintop removal. She's briefed top government regulators and Congress, helping promote stricter oversight. She's even put in a memorable appearance on The Colbert Report, a popular television show.
It's a public role that many scientists would find deeply uncomfortable—and that Palmer herself once would have shunned. Earlier in her career, the tenacious but self-effacing basic researcher kept a low profile, even refusing to return calls from journalists. She dreaded the prospect of this profile, says her husband, Michael Nussman. The attention is "embarrassing for an introvert."
Over the past decade, however, Palmer has undergone a transformation, emerging as an influential voice on complex and contentious environmental issues—and inspiring other researchers to follow. In the early 2000s, she tackled the booming business of restoring rivers, raising troubling questions about its effectiveness. Later, after a heart-wrenching airplane ride, Palmer turned her attention to the headwater streams buried by mountaintop mines in the eastern United States. That experience is now helping her shape a new $27.5 million research center, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), designed to engage scientists in policymaking.
Palmer "wants her science to be relevant," says Margaret Janes, a retired policy analyst with the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates, who first recruited Palmer as an expert witness for court battles. And that's led to a willingness to risk some private, and public, discomfort. Her courtroom interactions with industry lawyers, for instance, are becoming "more and more hostile," Palmer says. "It's increasingly personal."
Palmer had her feet wet from an early age. Born on an Air Force base in Florida, she was raised in Greenville, South Carolina, playing in nearby Appalachian creeks and scampering after crayfish. "I grew up in a working-class setting," she says. "I wasn't going to be a housewife." The youngest of four sisters, Palmer was the only person in her family to go into science. A college course in invertebrate ecology got her hooked, and Palmer went on to earn a Ph.D. in coastal oceanography from the University of South Carolina, studying benthic invertebrates in estuaries.
Her first academic job, however, took Palmer far from the ocean. Arriving at Wabash College in 1983, Palmer found herself in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a small town about an hour northwest of Indianapolis. She quickly adapted her research to look at freshwater streams. And teaching at the all-male college, she says, led to a political awakening as she began to read up on feminism.
In 1987, Palmer moved to College Park, Maryland, after her husband became a congressional staffer. (He now heads the American Sportfishing Association.) In addition to biology, she taught feminist theory and the philosophy of science. "It changed my perspective on why we do the kind of science we do," she says. "On some level, it influenced my interest in doing science that has policy implications."
While she and Nussman raised two sons, Palmer studied the role of patchy habitats within streams. She discovered that natural fragmentation—such as the scattered clumps of decomposing leaves on the riverbed—boosts populations of copepods and larval flies. In another study, she found turbulence from water flowing over rough streambeds enhances restoration of ecological processes.
During the 1990s, those seemingly abstruse findings became relevant to a policy debate. Ecological restoration was becoming a big business, as government regulators required developers to compensate for damage to streams and wetlands by creating or restoring similar ecosystems elsewhere. But contractors were following crude blueprints, and Palmer's research made her skeptical that restored streams could match the intricate functions of natural ones. She kick-started a review through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, which ultimately assembled a database of 37,000 stream restoration projects. In an influential study, her team concluded that more than $1 billion per year had been spent on such projects since 1990 with scant follow-up to measure effectiveness (Science, 29 April 2005, p. 636). The scrutiny spurred many restoration funders to require more monitoring, although critics say that it still often ignores important ecological factors.
The restoration study was just one marker of Palmer's increasing engagement in policy. The Ecological Society of America tapped her to help craft a manifesto for "pragmatic ecological science" that could help address pressing environmental problems (Science, 28 May 2004, p. 1251). And not long after, she was asked to head the $15 million Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, about 100 km southeast of Washington, D.C. It wasn't easy sailing. Palmer had to lay off support staff and raze an unsafe lab, but she won a $1.7 million grant from NSF to replace an aging research pier.
Where many scientists struggle to juggle research and family, Palmer faced a three-way balancing act as an emerging public figure. One coping mechanism was a weekly dinner with two other female faculty members, a psychologist and a chemist, in College Park. Calling themselves "The No Club," they discussed invitations and obligations and recommended which ones should be declined, to manage their workloads. "You will be asked to be on more committees than you can be on," Palmer says, especially women and minorities. "You have to figure out which ones really matter."
Palmer had a hard time saying no to the fight against mountaintop mining. The technique had begun in earnest in the early 1990s as companies chased thin seams of lower sulfur coal. The beds are too far underground for traditional strip mining, but not thick or deep enough for tunneling. The solution, essentially, is to blow up the top of a mountain. Bulldozers then shove the rocky debris into adjacent valleys, exposing the coal, but burying tiny headwater streams. (To date, mountaintop removal has filled in more than 2000 kilometers of streams throughout Appalachia.)
As the practice spread, it attracted controversy. Coal companies say they take pains to restore the original topography and create new rocky channels to replace buried streams, as regulations require. But community activists and environmentalists argue that the industry and government officials downplay the damage done by mining and overstate their ability to repair it.
Palmer entered the debate in 2003, after Appalachian Mountain Advocates called. The Lewisburg, West Virginia–based group wanted her to review coal companies' plans to create replacement streams, which the companies submitted with their permit applications for new mines. To show Palmer the issue firsthand, a nonprofit group called SouthWings flew her over existing mines. Palmer and her husband had built a weekend cabin in West Virginia years earlier, overlooking the Cacapon River, so she expected to see pockets of mining. But peering out the window of the Cessna, she felt overwhelmed by the extent of wasteland. "My God," she thought. "I've got to do something."
When Palmer pored over the available data, a clear picture emerged. Aquatic habitat was damaged even far downstream from valley fills. No scientific evidence indicated that the rebuilt waterways could effectively replace small headwater streams. The government regulators who approved such mitigation, she says, tend to focus on rebuilding lost miles of streams, but not their ecological functions. When a bill to ban valley fill was introduced into the U.S. Senate in 2009, Palmer told the committee bluntly: "[T]he streams that are buried when rocks and dirt are dumped … into the valleys below are gone forever."
Some courts began to agree. In 2007, for instance, a federal judge blocked permits for several major mines, based in part on Palmer's analysis. Although a higher court ultimately struck down the heart of that decision, the attention helped build the case for tighter regulation. After Barack Obama became president in 2009, for example, senior environmental administrators asked her to brief them on the science of mining impacts. Soon, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that they would take a closer look at requests for 79 mining permits in four states.
In 2010, the publication of an analysis led by Palmer reinforced the argument that mountaintop stream mitigation could not restore what was lost (Science, 8 January 2010, p. 148). The report, which included new data on streams from West Virginia, made headlines, stoked by a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington. "It gave EPA the national spotlight, the scientific validation for taking the steps it did, even with withering political opposition," says Donald Boesch, head of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge. "It had enormous impact." The resulting regulatory crackdown, which included tightening the requirements for permits, persuaded some mining companies to abandon mountaintop removal.
Others have elected to fight the regulations and the research behind them. Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, has said that EPA's approach "is based on bad science." For example, the industry has argued that using populations of mayflies as a gauge of stream health is inappropriate, because they say these insects are ultrasensitive to water quality. "As if it mattered, more bugs are killed overwhelmingly by car windshields than on mine sites," claims a glossy flyer produced by Walker Machinery Co., which sells and services mining equipment in 33 counties.
Such rancor lies just under the surface in the staid, oak-paneled courtrooms where Palmer has been asked to testify. Looking for ammunition to discredit the researcher, industry attorneys have used state sunshine laws to request copies of Palmer's university e-mails over many years. Last summer, a free-market think tank demanded EPA turn over copies of her communications with agency scientists.
Once in court, opponents have tried hard to persuade judges to throw out her testimony as that of biased activist. "[S]he has adopted an uncompromising opinion about surface mining that leaves no room for objective scientific analysis," lawyers for the Highland Mining Co. of Logan, West Virginia, argued unsuccessfully in an April 2012 case. Palmer's "fundamental opposition to all surface mines in central Appalachia … renders her opinion both untrustworthy and unhelpful to the Court."
Such attacks highlight just how seriously companies take Palmeris stature, says Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown. "The desire to exclude her testimony shows the fear that the industry has that her science will persuade decision-makers."
The jousting can get prickly and personal. Palmer has spent countless hours traveling to mines to evaluate streams, reading voluminous files, preparing reports, and sitting in court, paid a consulting fee of $175 an hour and also helping pro bono. During Palmer's December testimony, Shane Harvey, the defense attorney for Elk Run Coal Co., focused on the fact that she had to find time to work on mining issues while on vacation:
Harvey: "I mean I think you told me during your deposition that you were on vacation with your sisters at the beach and you had to write your report down there. Do you remember that?"
Palmer: "I had to finish the report there; that's correct."
Harvey: "You had to finish it there. Okay."
Palmer: "It had been started a good while before."
At another point, Harvey tried to pin Palmer down on the industry's rosy interpretation of some key data. But she was skeptical, saying it appeared the company had cherry-picked their numbers. "I would be very surprised if when we looked at all the data if that was a consistent pattern," she said. "And that's why I said many times I'd have to go through and look at all the data, which clearly you have access to and I haven't seen."
Joe Lovett, director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, one of the groups that have employed Palmer as a consultant, says she is unflappable. "I don't think anyone has ever tripped her up." Despite her cool demeanor, however, Palmer has found some of the confrontations unnerving. "Their implication was that I'd done a poor job of preparing and didn't know the science," she says of the coal company attorneys. Palmer herself felt she should have done better. The moments of self-doubt may arise from a self-critical personality. "She tends to think she hasn't made a difference," Nussman says.
Yet her new confidence is unmistakable, underscored by her response when The Colbert Report called in 2010, asking for an interview. The show has nearly 1 million viewers, and host Stephen Colbert is infamous for his withering questions. It would be uncomfortable territory for any academic. Yet Palmer agreed, seeing an opportunity to speak directly to the public.
Before she headed into the floodlights, she wondered "What have I gotten myself into?" But that night, Palmer hit her stride. "She was funny. She was relaxed. Colbert got in her face, and she got right back into his," recalls ecologist David Allan of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Still, any researcher faces some inherent risks when stepping into the role of an advocate. "The more you become a public figure, the less you are perceived as a science-only kind of scientist," says Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School in South Royalton. Despite competing demands, Palmer has maintained her basic ecological research, which she feels helps maintain her credibility. "She's keeping her boots muddy," says her former postdoc Emily Bernhardt of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
A new experiment
Palmer spends much of her time now in a new office building in Annapolis that houses the NSF-funded National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), which she directs. ("Terrible acronym," Palmer told an attorney during a deposition. "All the good acronyms were gone.")
Palmer led the proposal for the center, which is dedicated to injecting science into policy. Better grounded policy, she hopes, could ultimately minimize the kind of courtroom battles and social conflict that she has experienced with mountaintop mining.
Palmer sees SESYNC as "a giant experiment" in collaboration. It brings together researchers from a broad diversity of disciplines, including economics and political science, to analyze existing data sets that could help solve environmental problems. (Coincidentally, it also shares space with Merrill Lynch, so investment bankers in double-breasted suits walk the halls with fleece-clad ecologists and sociologists.) Recent projects have created a global database of where city dwellers get their water, and examined how psychological methods could be applied to sustainable development.
The center hasn't delved into mountaintop removal issues, but Palmer continues her work. She recently finished drafting a manuscript that evaluates monitoring reports for 434 stream mitigation projects in coal country, which she got through a Freedom of Information Act request. Most show that the streams are suffering from ecological damage, and that the replacements provide poor habitat. "My fears I had when I flew over these mines are turning out to be correct," she says.
Without a doubt, she will again be making the long drive to an Appalachian courtroom to testify about those results. "The fact that she's willing to testify and stick her neck out is remarkable," Parenteau says. "God help us if no scientists would do that."
Peering Into Peer Review
- Jeffrey Mervis
Why don't proposals given better scores by the National Institutes of Health lead to more important research outcomes?
Michael Lauer's job at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is to fund the best cardiology research and to disseminate the results rapidly to other scientists, physicians, and the public. But NIH's peer-review system, which relies on an army of unpaid volunteer scientists to prioritize grant proposals, may be making it harder to achieve that goal. Two recent studies by Lauer, who heads the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in Bethesda, Maryland, raise some disturbing questions about a system used to distribute billions of dollars of federal funds each year.
Lauer recently analyzed the citation record of papers generated by nearly 1500 grants awarded by NHLBI to individual investigators between 2001 and 2008. He was shocked by the results, which appeared online last month in Circulation Research: The funded projects with the poorest priority scores from reviewers garnered just as many citations and publications as those with the best scores. That was the case even though low-scoring researchers had been given less money than their top-rated peers.
"Peer review should be able to tell us what research projects will have the biggest impacts," Lauer contends. "In fact, we explicitly tell scientists it's one of the main criteria for review. But what we found is quite remarkable. Peer review is not predicting outcomes at all. And that's quite disconcerting."
Two months earlier, Lauer and his NHLBI colleagues had published a study of 224 NHLBI-funded clinical trials that produced a similar bottom line, using a different marker of importance: how quickly the studies were published. Lauer believes that the two papers strongly suggest that reviewers did not do very well in separating the wheat from the chaff on $2 billion worth of NHLBI research.
Lauer says he's presented his work to NIH Director Francis Collins and other senior officials and that "not one of them pointed out any flaws or thought we had come up with some sort of erroneous finding." But that doesn't mean they agree with his conclusion.
Richard Nakamura, who oversees NIH's peer-review apparatus as head of the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), is skeptical of the use of after-the-fact yardsticks such as citations and time to publication to gauge impact. "CSR's focus is much more on what good scientists think will have high impact as opposed to what bibliometric measures might suggest will have high impact," he says.
Several social scientists who have thought about ways to measure the impact of peer review hail Lauer's willingness to put the current system under a microscope. Such studies could help NIH and other U.S. research agencies do a better job of allocating scarce resources, says economist Adam Jaffe, who directs Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, an institute in Wellington.
"You might learn that the money from the award itself makes a big difference, but that the ranking of specific proposals was close to random," says Jaffe, who moved to New Zealand last spring after nearly 2 decades as a professor and dean at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. "That would mean it's important for NIH to continue funding research, for example, but that maybe the resources used in the selection process aren't being spent effectively."
Lauer emphasizes that his studies do not mean NIH is funding bad research. Nor is he proposing radical changes in the current system, as some have (see sidebar, p. 598). But he hopes the results prod NIH to question some time-honored assumptions about peer review and focus more on ensuring that its awards are yielding the biggest payoff. "The analogy is to a doctor with a bunch of sick patients," he says. "How do I maximize their health?"
Faith in the system
Ask a scientist about peer review, and many will immediately cite Winston Churchill's famous description of democracy—"the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried." The comparison acknowledges the system's many flaws, including its innate conservatism and its inability to make fine distinctions, while providing a defense against attacks from both colleagues and those outside the scientific community. "CSR lives and dies by the belief that our reviews are fair, and that our only bias is around good science," Nakamura says. "And any evidence that suggests otherwise is very troubling."
That's not to say that Nakamura and his colleagues think the current system can't be improved. Last year, Collins asked a group of senior administrators to examine ways of "optimizing peer review" at NIH. In particular, the task force is looking at whether NIH needs to do more to identify and support proposals from emerging fields and, at the same time, learn how to pull the plug on once-hot areas where scientific interest has cooled. "Does the current structure perpetuate fields beyond their prime?" asks Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director and chair of the task force.
The 170 or so study sections that CSR manages are the essential element of the NIH peer-review system for external grants. Each consists of 12 to 22 outside scientists who meet three times a year to review an average of 70 applications. (Individual institutes also convene review panels of their own.) Panel members give each proposal a numerical score, and the proposal receives an impact score that is the average of individual votes. For many applications, that score is converted into a percentile ranking.
It's a massive system that requires heavy buy-in from the research community. Last year, for example, more than 24,000 scientists reviewed roughly 75,000 applications at some 2500 panel meetings. CSR's budget to manage the entire operation was $110 million.
NIH officials say that peer review is just one building block in constructing a well-balanced portfolio of grants. But they acknowledge that NIH program managers are much more likely than their counterparts at other federal agencies to worry about the consequences of funding a grant "out of order." The assumption is that study sections know best and that a panel's judgment should be overruled only for compelling reasons.
Still, Nakamura is always looking for fresh ways to assess the performance of study sections. At the December meeting of the CSR advisory council, for example, he and Tabak described one recent attempt that examined citation rates of publications generated from research funded by each panel. Those panels with rates higher than the norm—represented by the impact factor of the leading journal in that field—were labeled "hot," while panels with low scores were labeled "cold."
"If it's true that hotter science is that which beats the journals' impact factors, then you could distribute more money to the hot committees than the cold committees," Nakamura explains. "But that's only if you believe that. Major corporations have tried to predict what type of science will yield strong results—and we're all still waiting for IBM to create a machine that can do research with the highest payoff," he adds with tongue in cheek.
"I still believe that scientists ultimately beat metrics or machines. But there are serious challenges to that position. And the question is how to do the research that will show one approach is better than another."
Bolder fixes wanted
Jaffe says he tried for more than a decade to interest top officials at both NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in conducting the same type of quantitative analysis of peer review across the entire agency that Lauer has done within his program. But he was thwarted. "It's amazing to me how scientists who believe in the scientific method don't believe it should be applied to study what they do," Jaffe says. "It's just so intuitively obvious to them that [the current system of peer review] is the best way to do things."
Lauer set out to study peer review within his institute on his own, without funding from CSR. His first inkling that NIH peer review might be falling short came from reading a January 2012 study in BMJ. It reported that fewer than half of the researchers funded by NHLBI to test ways of preventing and treating heart disease had published their results within 30 months of the end of the trial, and that one-third of the trials never saw the light of day. A disbelieving Lauer expanded the BMJ sample and did his own analysis to be sure. "But they were right," he says. A long lag time might be expected for negative results, but Lauer found the record was no better for studies that came up positive.
He wondered whether the sluggish publication record was a sign of a deeper problem: Maybe the institute was failing to fund studies that journals viewed as urgent and important. And that led him to question whether the peer-review system was doing its job.
So Lauer examined whether funded proposals that were ranked higher during peer review ended up having their data published faster. They didn't. "[T]here was no significant association between the peer-review priority scores received before the trial was funded and the time to publication," he and his NHLBI colleagues wrote last fall in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Lauer believes that his findings reflect a bias among reviewers at NHLBI against so-called pragmatic studies, which aim to inform patient care directly by studying a procedure or drug in a typical clinical setting such as an urban hospital. "The message from a pragmatic trial is that you either will or will not do something," he says. "But fewer than 20% of our trials focus on that."
The majority of NIH clinical trials are instead aimed at testing the underlying biological mechanism of a disease or a treatment. That approach requires researchers to examine a strictly defined set of participants in a specialized clinical environment. Study sections view such an approach as more compelling, Lauer says. "When I go on the road to preach pragmatic trials," he says, "I can predict that someone will stand up and say, 'That's all well and good. But if we submit a proposal for a pragmatic trial, it will get killed in review.' "
Lauer is already at work on changing that perception. The heart division has invited researchers to submit proposals for pragmatic trials that address what he calls "important clinical questions." He's also altered the review process in two significant ways: All the proposals will go to a single panel that will only judge pragmatic trials, and its members will consist of "people who know a lot about pragmatic trials and think they are valuable."
Lauer says his second study, which looked at NIH's bread-and-butter R01 grants, highlights another problem. It divided R01 grants awarded by NHLBI into three pools based on their percentile ranking—better than 10th percentile, 10th to 20th, and 20th to 42nd. His sample went back to 2001, when NIH had the resources to fund some of the proposals in that third tier. These days, proposals in that third category have virtually no chance of being funded, so the fact that the research drew as many citations as top-ranked projects suggests that peer reviewers are ruling out a large share of potentially significant research.
The problems of peer review, Lauer says, are those that afflict any system that relies on the judgments of experts. One eye-opener for Lauer was a 2006 book by Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, titled Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? The book describes how experts do little better than chance in predicting political events and also vastly overrate their prognosticating abilities. Its lessons apply to peer review as well, Tetlock says "There is high-impact research that has been rejected, and low-impact research that has been funded."
Tetlock is not surprised that NIH hasn't rushed to embrace the kind of self-examination Lauer has done. "Most institutions are not enthusiastic about an objective appraisal of their track records," he says. They are also worried that the results could be used against them. "If the hit rate is not too high and the false positives are high," he says, "people may jump to the conclusion that you guys are a bunch of idiots. In fact, the agency could be doing as good a job as possible, given the unpredictability of the task."
Lauer and Jaffe say NIH should be bolder in designing experiments to improve peer review without abandoning it. In particular, they would like NIH to rigorously test critical components of the system. Possibilities include using a second set of reviewers as a control, or asking reviewers to score proposals on several specific criteria and then tallying up those subscores rather than asking for one overall rating, as is done now.
No system has a 100% hit rate on high-impact programs and never funds a low-impact program, Tetlock notes. "That would be God," he says. But he believes there is plenty of room for improvement. "By using the best science we have on how to elicit and aggregate judgments, maybe we can get our hit rate up and our false positives down," Tetlock says. "And that would be a better world."
Correction: In the "No Advantage" graphic, the third bar graph depicts the number of citations in the first 2 years after publication for the most noted paper. This timing information was previously omitted, but the graphic has now been corrected.
Making Every Scientist a Research Funder
- Jeffrey Mervis
A radical proposal to revamp peer review would give scientists an even bigger role in deciding how to distribute U.S. research dollars—at a fraction of the current cost.
When it comes to using peer review to distribute research dollars, Johan Bollen favors radical simplicity.
Over the years, many scientists have suggested that the current system could be improved by changing the composition of the review panels, tweaking the interactions among reviewers, or revising how the proposals are scored. But Bollen, a computer scientist at Indiana University, Bloomington, would simply award all eligible researchers a block grant—and then require them to give some of it away to colleagues they judge most deserving.
That radical step, described in a paper Bollen and four Indiana colleagues recently posted on EMBO Reports, retains peer review's core concept of tapping into the views of the most knowledgeable researchers. But it would eliminate the huge investment in time and money required to submit proposals and assemble panels to judge them.
Bollen's process would be almost instantaneous: In a version of expert-directed crowdsourcing, scientists would fill out a form once a year listing their favored researchers, and a predetermined portion of their annual grant money—a total of, say, 50%—would then be transferred to their choices.
"So many scientists spend so much time on peer review, and there's a high level of frustration," Bollen explains. "We already know who the best people are. And if you're doing good work, then you deserve to receive support."
Others are skeptical. "I've known Johan for a long time and have the highest regard for his ability as an out-of-the-box thinker," says Stephen Griffin, a retired National Science Foundation (NSF) program manager who's now a visiting professor of information sciences at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. "But there are a number of issues he doesn't address."
Those sticking points include the likely mismatch between what researchers need and what their colleagues give them; the absence of any replacement for the overhead payments in today's grants, which support infrastructure at host institutions; and the dearth of public accountability for the billions of dollars that would flow from public coffers to individuals. "Scientists aren't really equipped to be a funding agency," Griffin notes.
Bollen acknowledges that the process would need safeguards to ensure that scientists don't reward their friends or punish their enemies. But his analysis suggests that the U.S. research landscape would not look all that different if his radical proposal were adopted.
Drawing upon citation data in 37 million papers over 20 years, the Indiana researchers conducted a simulation premised on the idea that scientists would reallocate their federal dollars according to how often they cited their peers. The simulation, he says, yielded a funding pattern "similar in shape to the actual distribution" at NSF and the National Institutes of Health for the past decade—at a fraction of the overhead required by the current system.
- 2013 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge
2013 Visualization Challenge
Science and the National Science Foundation present the winners of the 2013 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.
Cortex in Metallic Pastels
Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards, Greg Dunn Design, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Marty Saggese, Society for Neuroscience, Washington, D.C.; Tracy Bale, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Rick Huganir, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
With a Ph.D. in neuroscience and a love of Asian art, it may have been inevitable that Greg Dunn would combine them to create sparse, striking illustrations of the brain. "It was a perfect synthesis of my interests," Dunn says.
Cortex in Metallic Pastels represents a stylized section of the cerebral cortex, in which axons, dendrites, and other features create a scene reminiscent of a copse of silver birch at twilight. An accurate depiction of a slice of cerebral cortex would be a confusing mess, Dunn says, so he thins out the forest of cells, revealing the delicate branching structure of each neuron.
Dunn blows pigments across the canvas to create the neurons and highlights some of them in gold leaf and palladium, a technique he is keen to develop further.
"My eventual goal is to start an art-science lab," he says. It would bring students of art and science together to develop new artistic techniques. He is already using lithography to give each neuron in his paintings a different angle of reflectance. "As you walk around, different neurons appear and disappear, so you can pack it with information," he says.
The painting was commissioned for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Brain Science Institute, but, Dunn says, "I want to be able to communicate with a wide swath of people." He hopes that lay viewers will see how the branching structures of neurons mirror so many other natural structures, from river deltas to the roots of a tree. "I want to help people to appreciate the beauty of the brain."
"It is just gorgeous," says judge Alisa Zapp Machalek. "The fact that science can be in an art museum is something we want to encourage."
Prints of Greg Dunn's art, including this winning painting, are available at www.gregadunn.com.
Honorable Mention: Security Blanket
Lorrie Faith Cranor, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
How much protection do your Internet passwords provide? Some 32 million passwords stolen from the games website RockYou were published on the World Wide Web in 2009, and they reveal our penchant for choosing passwords that may offer no security at all.
Last year, Lorrie Faith Cranor, avid quilter and director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, created Security Blanket, which displays a multicolored "word cloud" of the 1000 most common passwords in the RockYou release. The passwords were sized according to their frequency and colored according to their theme.
The most common—"123456"—was chosen by three times as many people as the next most popular password and is so large that it forms a faint backdrop across the whole quilt. But beyond the other obvious passwords (such as—duh—"password"), Cranor shows that our selections often converge on the same words. "Chocolate" is the most popular food-related password; "monkey" tops the animals category; and, reassuringly, words relating to love or tenderness far outweigh profanities.
Cranor has also made a password dress for herself, which she wore to the opening of an exhibition of her quilts. "A couple of friends have suggested turning the quilt design into a line of baby linens for the children of geeky parents," she adds.
People's Choice: Human Hand Controlling Bacterial Biofilms
Lydia-Marié Joubert, Cell Sciences Imaging Facility, Stanford University, California
In our war against bacteria, the microbes are winning. That somber message is writ large in this image of a human hand covered with Pseudomonas bacteria.
"Antimicrobial resistance is a hot topic, especially since it has become clear that our efforts to eradicate microorganisms have made them more resilient," says Lydia-Marié Joubert, an electron microscopy specialist at Stanford University who created the image. While attending a conference at Gregynog Hall in Wales, Joubert photographed a 1.5-meter-high human hand that reaches out of the soil in the hall's gardens, sculpted by British artist Francis Hewlett. Then she overlaid micrographs of cultured biofilms, which had been stained with molecular probes to indicate the health of the cells. Those colored green are resistant to antimicrobial treatment—only a rare few are red, indicating that they have been vanquished.
"We try to control microbes," Joubert says, "but the unseen world remains victorious."
Posters & Graphics
Kristy Jost, Babak Anasori, Majid Beidaghi, Genevieve Dion, and Yury Gogotsi, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
"When I try to explain that I make fabric batteries to people, they kinda give me this look like their brain has just exploded," says materials scientist Kristy Jost, who is studying for her Ph.D. at Drexel University. "Having a visual is really helpful."
"Smart textiles" offer the opportunity to create functional clothes—a vest that can measure your heart rate, for example. But flexible sensors are still powered by hard, uncomfortable batteries. "Why not make the whole system out of textiles?" Jost asks. Her research aims to create fabrics from carbon and steel yarns that are coated with electrolytes so that the resulting garment is also a wearable capacitor, able to store energy.
Jost spends much of her time in Drexel's knitting research laboratory—yes, you read that right—which boasts state-of the-art equipment donated by Shima Seiki, a Japanese company that makes computerized 3D knitting systems. The machines can knit an entire seamless garment in 20 minutes, and Jost has become adept at using the design software that drives them—although she admits sheepishly that she has not yet learned to knit by hand.
She used her design expertise in the winning poster, which shows how the yarns intertwine to create a complete item of clothing and includes scanning electron microscope images and nanoscale diagrams to illustrate how the smart textile works at different scales. "It has an incredible amount of technical material," judge Thomas Wagner says. "It's a phenomenal piece of education."
Jost was delighted by the judges' award, but was particularly pleased that she was also the People's Choice in this category. "When you also get the People's Choice award," she says, "you know you've really communicated the science well."
Honorable Mention: The Life Cycle of a Bubble Cluster: Insight from Mathematics, Algorithms, and Supercomputers
Robert I. Saye and James A. Sethian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley
"Isn't that just a photograph of soap bubbles?" Robert Saye and James Sethian hear that all the time when people see their poster. "Naturally we are eager to point out that it is in fact a visualization of a physics computational model," says Saye, who recently completed his Ph.D. with Sethian at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley.
Predicting how bubbles in a foam rearrange and rupture is a tough modeling problem, because it involves intricately coupled processes that operate at very different scales. The soap films are only micrometers thick, while the gas pockets themselves might be centimeters across. Meanwhile, individual films rupture in milliseconds; bubbles rearrange in a fraction of a second; and liquid inside the film drains over tens of seconds or longer.
Running a simulation at the smallest scales to predict the macroscopic effects would eat up vast amounts of computer power. "Instead, we found a way to separate distinct time and space scales, and allow these to communicate so that the most important physics affecting foam dynamics are captured," Saye says. The model, published last year (Science, 10 May 2013, p. 720), could be useful in devising lightweight materials or optimizing industrial processes, he and Sethian suggest.
Watch a video of the foam simulation at youtube.com/watch?v=ciciWBz8m_Y.
Honorable Mention: Effects of Cold-stunning on Sea Turtles
Katelyn McDonald and Timothy Phelps, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland; Jennifer Dittmar, the National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland
By the time October's chill winds begin to blow across the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States, sea turtles near the coast are beginning to head south in search of warmer waters. But an unlucky few are overtaken by plummeting water temperatures and develop hypothermia. The turtle can lose consciousness and suffer shell damage and infections in a process called cold-stunning.
Katelyn McDonald, a master's student in biological and medical illustration at Johns Hopkins University, created the poster to explain cold-stunning to the general public, who may find afflicted turtles on the beach. "I am fascinated by sea turtles because of their majestic beauty, and how little is known about them, since they spend so little time on land," McDonald says.
The poster describes the physiological changes that lead to cold-stunning in a series of beautiful anatomical illustrations that were all based on medical images, but were drawn and assembled using computer design software. It also shows how to identify a cold-stunned turtle and provides the number of a turtle stranding hotline. McDonald says her goal is that the public "would learn more about the health of sea turtles, and hopefully be aware of the appearance of cold-stunned sea turtles and then call the hotline to seek help."
Invisible Coral Flows
Vicente I. Fernandez, Orr H. Shapiro, Melissa S. Garren, Assaf Vardi, and Roman Stocker, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
The swirling patterns moving around these coral polyps may look like fireworks streaking across a long-exposure photograph—but they are the result of a cunning technique that uses false colors to help compress time and movement into a single picture.
The image shows two Pocillopora damicornis polyps roughly 3 millimeters apart, colored pink. To reveal how the corals' wafting cilia beat the water into a vortex, the team tracked particles in the water by video and super-imposed successive frames to highlight the flow (gold). About 90 minutes later, the coral polyps have changed position (shown in purple), altering the water flow (cyan), "but the vortex stayed roughly the same," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology environmental engineer Vicente Fernandez, part of the research team that produced the image. The spacing between points in the vortex tracks even reveals the speed of the particles, he adds: "Up close you can see the steps of individual particles, see where the flow is strongest." Fernandez says that the team drew inspiration from the palette used by Andy Warhol in his Flowers prints, which feature vivid, strongly contrasting colors.
The vortex helps draw nutrients toward the coral and sweep away waste products, says Fernandez's colleague Orr Shapiro, an ecologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. "Everywhere I look at corals now I find these vortical swirls," he adds.
"This was a unanimous winner," says judge Alisa Zapp Machalek. "It's a striking image—but it also represents an aspect of nature that, to our knowledge, had never been captured before."
Honorable Mention: Stellate leaf hairs on Deutzia scabra
Steve Lowry Photography, Portstewart, Northern Ireland, U.K.
These exuberant starbursts shoot from the leaves of Deutzia scabra, a deciduous shrub sometimes known as "Pride of Rochester." Its leaves are covered with tiny hairs tipped by stars a quarter-millimeter across, giving it a fuzzy texture that Japanese woodworkers sometimes use for fine polishing.
Microscopist Steve Lowry created the image's vibrant hues using polarized light microscopy and emphasized the blue color by filtering the light through a crystal of selenite (calcium sulfate). He has been interested in this 19th century technique since 2007, when he produced an exhibition of images from Victorian microscope slides.
Lowry says that the image shows how this microscopy technique, whose use has waned in recent years, can still be a valuable tool in plant taxonomy. By revealing variations in the stars' density, size, and shape, for example, it can help distinguish the more than 20 different species of Deutzia. But it also offers aesthetic insight, he says, introducing people "to the hidden beauty of plants not visible to the human eye."
People's Choice: Polymer Micro-structure Self-assembly
Anna Pyayt and Howard Kaplan, University of South Florida, Tampa
Is this an alien microbe, glowing with unearthly vitality? Or perhaps an aerial shot of Manhattan Island after a catastrophic flood? In fact, it shows the microstructure of a 2-millimeter-long fragment of self-assembled polymers, which University of South Florida materials scientist Anna Pyayt is using to build miniature "lab-on-a-chip" devices for biomedical diagnostic applications.
Processing combinations of polymers at various temperatures or humidities creates completely different textures, she explains, which can help to control the movement and proliferation of cells inside the devices. The digitally enhanced micrographs are even more revealing after Howard Kaplan at the university's Advanced Visualization Center turns them into 3D images. "We have been using a huge 20-megapixel 3D-visualization wall to study little details and nuances of topographies that we produce in our experiments," Pyayt says. With the help of a 3D printer, they have even turned the images into tactile objects the size of a candy bar.
"To see this complex, rich structure with so many little details was amazing," Pyayt says. "The first word that we usually hear is 'Wow.' "
Games & Apps
Mark Richardson, William Silversmith, Matthew Balkam, Jinseop Kim, Amy Robinson, Alex Norton and H. Sebastian Seung, EyeWire, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
Swamped by a deluge of data, some labs are using the power of crowds to make sense of their results. These citizen science projects ask nonspecialists to analyze real research data, often by looking for patterns that computers are unable to spot. Some of the most successful efforts turn the task into games, fostering a sense of competition that can keep players hooked.
EyeWire is one of the fastest growing citizen science projects ever created. After going live in December 2012, "we got to 100,000 players on our first birthday," says Amy Robinson, the project's creative director. "It solves a big technical bottleneck in neuroscience—reconstructing neuron circuits."
Run from the lab of Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist H. Sebastian Seung, the game presents players with micrographs that show the neurons in a mouse's retina. The goal is to distinguish the twists and turns of a particular neuron in 3D, in order to build up a complete map of the complex connections involved in vision.
It's proved difficult to develop artificial intelligence software that can do the job, whereas the army of human volunteers can use subtle contextual clues, such as jagged edges or discontinuities, to delineate each neuron. Seung's team is using the EyeWire maps to help them understand how the eye detects motion, and their first paper using the game's results is now under review.
One of the game's biggest strengths is the close collaboration between the EyeWire team and their recruits—everyone is consulted before new features are introduced, for example. "I'm constantly amazed by the community we've built," Robinson says. EyeWire is proof that games have become a powerful force in science communication, says judge Lori Kozlowski: "You're able to reach the public in a way that allows them to become much more comfortable with the science."
Honorable Mention: EarthViewer
Mark Nielsen and Satoshi Amagai, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Maryland; Michael Clark, EarthBuzz Software Pte Ltd., Singapore; Blake Porch; Dennis Liu, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Maryland
EarthViewer is an iPad app that puts our planet's deep history at your finger-tips. You can scroll through billions of years in a few seconds, watching how continents shift and how changes in solar luminosity, atmospheric composition, and climate interact. A simple swipe across the screen rotates this virtual Earth, letting you explore at will. The app also comes with profiles of the creatures that inhabited the ancient Earth and allows you to zoom in on where their fossils were found.
Developed by the Educational Resources Group at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, it is intended primarily as a teaching tool in high school. But it is pretty addictive for inquisitive adults, too—even those who have always had trouble telling the Paleocene from the Pliocene.
Honorable Mention: Deep-sea Extreme Environment Pilot (DEEP)
Daniel Rohrlick, Eric Simms, Cheryl Peach, and Debi Kilb, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, California; Charina Cain, Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, California
This educational game enables budding deep-sea explorers to guide a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) as it studies a virtual hydrothermal vent. Giant tubeworms sway gently as an eel swishes past; a nosy octopus even comes over for a look. As the ROV moves through its 3D environment, the pilot can take temperature readings, snap pictures, and grab samples with the craft's robot arm to complete a series of research missions.
Educators at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography developed the interactive game to inspire middle school pupils. It offers the same freedom afforded by commercial "open world" games, allowing users to explore at their own pace. Its appeal is not limited to schoolchildren, notes Daniel Rohrlick, one of the developers: "Even ROV pilots enjoy the game."
People's Choice: Meta!Blast: The Leaf
Eve Syrkin Wurtele, William Schneller, Paul Klippel, Greg Hanes, Andrew Navratil, and Diane Bassham, Iowa State University, Ames
"Most people don't expect a whole ecosystem right on the leaf surface," says Eve Syrkin Wurtele, a plant biologist at Iowa State University. Meta!Blast: The Leaf, the game that Wurtele and her team created, lets high school students pilot a miniature bioship across this strange landscape, which features nematodes and a lumbering tardigrade. They can dive into individual cells and zoom around a chloroplast, activating photosynthesis with their ship's search lamp. Pilots can also scan each organelle they encounter to bring up more information about it from the ship's BioLog—a neat way to put plant biology at the heart of an interactive gaming environment.
This is a second recognition for Meta!Blast, which won an Honorable Mention in the 2011 visualization challenge for a version limited to the inside of a plant cell.
Coronal Mass Ejection and Ocean/Wind Circulation
Greg Shirah, Horace Mitchell, and Tom Bridgman, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Greenbelt, Maryland
Like a million-strong armada, solar particles hurtle toward Earth—and we are flying with them. The planet's magnetic field forms a safe cocoon against the invaders, but the sun's warmth permeates our atmosphere, and we can see how it drives wind patterns in immense loops and whorls. Our flight ends with a plunge into the ocean, exploring the majestic structure of the Gulf Stream, which our guide tells us "carries enough heat energy to power the industrial world a hundred times over." It truly is an immersive experience.
The video segment is just part of a longer film called Dynamic Earth: Exploring Earth's Climate Engine that has played to audiences in planetaria around the world. "It's one of the top visualizations we've ever done," says Horace Mitchell, who leads NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio.
The film took about a year and a half to produce, using real satellite data and six computational models to create a vision that is both beautiful and scientifically accurate. Its long, swooping scenes reveal how different parts of the climate system interact at very different scales. "I was impressed by how the video was able to connect phenomena starting at the sun down to planet Earth," says judge Alisa Zapp Machalek.
Mitchell uses the same production software as commercial studios such as Pixar. But unlike animators, who see only what they plan and create, his team is often surprised by what their virtual creations reveal: "After we put the data in, we say 'Wow, we didn't know it was going to look like that.'"
Honorable Mention: StemCellShorts
Ben Paylor, Michael Long, Jim Till, Janet Rossant, Mick Bhatia, David Murawsky, and James Wallace, Stem Cell Network, Ottawa
"In an animated medium, almost anything is explainable within 60 seconds," says Ben Paylor, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada. Witness these three 1-minute videos, created by Paylor and Michael Long, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, to introduce a lay audience to stem cells in their embryonic and induced pluripotent forms.
Paylor and Long co-founded InfoShots, an animation studio based in Vancouver, to turn complicated science into compact, digestible films. After winning a grant from the Stem Cell Network, which funds applied stem cell research across Canada, they recruited eminent scientists to help script and voice these slick animations. "It was pretty amazing to hear Jim Till explain the experiments that he and Ernest McCulloch performed in the 1960s, which led to the discovery of stem cells," Long says.
Paylor and Long are now expanding the series to cover adult and cancer stem cells, as well as ethical issues surrounding stem cell research, in the hope that it will help foster informed public dialogue about the implications and future of the work.
Honorable Mention: Immunology of the Gut Mucosa
Doug Huff and Elizabeth Anderson, Arkitek Studios, Seattle, Washington; Zoltan Fehervari, Nature Immunology, London; Simon Fenwick, Nature Reviews, London
If James Cameron's long-delayed remake of the '60s sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage ever hits the big screen, it might look something like this. After hurtling down a virtual throat, the 7-minute animation takes us on a tour around the gut—home to the body's largest population of immune cells—where a few hardy pathogens are beginning to cause trouble.
The film guides us deftly through the complex cast of characters that unite to battle the bacteria: T cells, macrophages, neutrophils, and more. Some of these iridescent warriors fizz with messenger molecules, while others pulse with deadly energy before exploding to destroy the bacteria. The video also shows how disorder in the ranks of immune soldiers can lead to problems such as inflammatory bowel disease.
"We've had a wonderful response, particularly from people suffering from complications of the gut who've expressed satisfaction at finally having a window on what's going on inside them," says Beth Anderson, CEO of medical visualization company Arkitek Studios, which created the video.
Honorable Mention: Visualizing Leaf Cells from Within
Geoffrey J. Harlow, Shuo Li, Albert C. Cruz, Jisheng Chen, and Zhenbiao Yang, University of California, Riverside
Leaves come in a dazzling variety of shapes and sizes, and Geoffrey Harlow wants to know why. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside, Harlow is studying the genetic factors that influence the architecture of pavement cells, which form a strong interlocking layer across a leaf's surface and help determine its overall shape.
Looking at endless microscopy images to work out how a particular genetic mutation affected the pavement cells of the workhorse lab plant Arabidopsis thaliana was subjective, and time-consuming. So Harlow worked with electrical engineer Albert Cruz to develop an automated system to identify the shapes of the pavement cells and the orientation of their internal skeleton of microtubules. "I was extremely shocked at how quickly the software could speed up analysis," Harlow says. The system is more than 900 times faster than a human poring over each image, he estimates.
Harlow used free editing software to create this explanatory video about his research. The 3-minute presentation offers enough detail to satisfy fellow plant biologists, while being accessible enough for anyone to glean the import of his work. "Even my 89-year-old grandma now has a basic understanding of the pavement cell system," Harlow says.
People's Choice: Spherical Nucleic Acids
Quintin Anderson, The Seagull Company, Midland, Texas; Chad Mirkin and Sarah Petrosko, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
The floating golden sphere, bristling with corkscrew strands of RNA, drifts majestically toward the jostling lipid bilayer that surrounds a cell. Slowly, gently, it squeezes through the layer until it is inside the cell.
Breezing across cell membranes is just one talent of these spherical nucleic acids (SNAs) developed by nanotechnology pioneer Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University. Once inside a cell, they can fend off attacks from enzymes, which makes them hot prospects as vehicles for delivering gene therapy treatments. SNAs also bind strongly to complementary strands of genetic material, an ability being used in a commercial medical diagnostics system called Verigene.
Mirkin commissioned Quintin Anderson, creative director at scientific animation firm The Seagull Company, to create a video explaining his research to colleagues and funders. The toughest part, Anderson says, was creating the lipid bilayer. "There are hundreds of thousands of lipids in those scenes and it required a complicated mathematical algorithm to create the random movements."