Data love: The risk of humanitarians acting like scientists | 

Mad Scientist WikimediaWarning: Reductionism can result in distorted vision, poor judgment and difficulty in operating a humanitarian project.

There’s a popular trend today among many humanitarians, aka the aid and development sector, to try to show the benefit of their projects – be it digging a well, feeding kids or improving access to basic health care – with scientific data.

That’s good in principle, if you have a well-designed study that produces meaningful data. But that can be a big if when what you are trying to test is a reduction in poverty, social and economic improvements, healthy behavior change or many of the other aims of aid and development.

It’s much easier for scientists to test a more isolated intervention, like say taking a pill, than it is to even figure out how best to track and attribute the potential impact of many humanitatian efforts. And it’s worth noting that the scientific community is finally acknowledging that even their most refined efforts in reductionist deduction, peer review and attribution often fail.

NY Times Scientific Pride and Prejudice

Economist Trouble at the Lab

Forbes NIH Promises to Make Science Less Wrong

The mainstream scientific community likes to call this a ‘reproducibility’ problem, saying the overall reliability and self-correcting nature of the scientific method(s) remain intact. But when it is noted, as in the NYTimes op-ed, that a team of scientists could only confirm the findings in six of more than 50 ‘landmark’ cancer studies, there is cause for concern.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian sector has a different problem. It tends to suffer from a lack of data or consensus on how best to measure the impact of various initiatives aimed at fighting poverty, diseases of poverty or other kinds of human inequity. The field did not arise, like science, from a desire to know so much as from a desire to help.

So will it help if humanitarians become more like scientists? Maybe. Maybe not. Continue reading

Kenyan farmers skeptical, lack knowledge about GMOs | 

A diseased stalk of maize in western Kenya.

Malava, Kenya – With a maize disease spreading across western Kenya, farmers are in need of seed alternatives and some are advocating the use of seeds genetically modified to fight disease.

However, genetically modified crops (aka GMOs, genetically modified organisms) are not yet a viable option for smallholder farmers. They are not an option for any farmer in Kenya.

The Kenyan government announced a ban of GMOs at the end of 2012. Only a year earlier it used GM corn to meet the emergency hunger needs of Kenyans caused by the drought across the Horn of Africa.

“The ban will remain in effect until there is sufficient information, data and knowledge demonstrating that GMO foods are not a danger to public health,” said the official statement.

The government announced that testing would commence in 2013 to determine the safety of bringing GMOs into Kenya. Pressure is on Kenya to change course and allow GMOs to gain entrance from advocates and even the US.

While Western nations battle over whether or not to label foods as GM or whether to ban them altogether, Kenya is still in the process of determining if they should be legalized. At a time when rain patterns are changing and people living in the north are vulnerable to drought, the potential of improved seed presents a lot of promise for Kenyan farmers. Continue reading

Bird flu flap resolved, sort of | 

Flickr, gainesp2003

The scientific community, in the end, agreed to publish controversial bird flu virus studies despite the arguments of those who favored keeping the research secret because of the risk some might use it to make a super bad virus.

At stake in this cockfight, as I wrote earlier, was the fundamental principle in science of open and transparent exchange of information pitted against the desire to reduce risk and the hypothetical threat of misuse.

The decision to publish is big news today and variously characterized:

New York Times Bird Flu Paper is Published After Debate

LA Times (via Herald) Scientists explain how they created easily spread virus

Wall Street Journal Study shows bird flu virus’ pandemic potential

Chronicle Higher Ed Study points the way how to stop, not start, pandemic

Yeah, I think that last headline should be the primary take-away here. The real risk here is that the H5N1 bird flu virus will naturally mutate into a form that is easily spread to humans (Note: Contrary to some news reports, the research virus is still not that easily spread in mammals).

Keeping important research secret because of possible misuse also poses a risk — it hamstrings the scientific community’s ability to make progress based on the work of others. The whole point of publication is to share knowledge. Below is an op-ed in Nature by a bio-weapons expert that makes the case for why publishing these studies was the right decision.

Nature Do Not Censor Science in the Name of Security. Says author Tim Trevan:

“Almost all biological knowledge can be either misused or applied for good…. Censorship of the H5N1 papers would not have kept the genie in the bottle. Suppressing such papers or limiting access to their findings might even encourage proliferation by drawing attention to the risks and by provoking those researchers denied access to the results to seek to replicate them.”

Bird flu cockfight: Secrecy vs Science | 

Flickr, 4BlueEyes

There’s a heated scientific debate going on right now between those who fear the terrorist use of chickens versus those who fear the slippery slope of secrecy in science.

Starting on Thursday, a blue-ribbon panel of invited experts will meet behind closed doors at the World Health Organization to discuss whether or not two controversial experiments done on the avian influenza (bird flu) virus H5N1 should be published.

Chickens are right now the primary means by which bird flu gets transmitted. The concern is that terrorists will use it against humans.

“Biology has never done this before,” said Dr. Samuel Miller, head of the NIH’s Northwest Regional Center for BioDefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases in Seattle.

This could be a critical moment for the biological sciences, Miller said, which has — like most of science — operated according to the fundamental tenet of the free exchange of information, transparency of methods and open, public debate as to the findings.


Samuel Miller, director UW Center on Biodefense

“What we are talking about here is really a fundamental change, about basically classifying a portion of biological research,” he said. Much of the physics community was forced into secrecy during World War II, Miller said, but nothing like this has ever been done for biology.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to get consensus on this,” he said.

The debate stems from two teams of researchers which, reportedly, have made the bird flu virus more easy to transmit in mammals. The virus in nature rarely infects humans but when it does can be very deadly. Continue reading

Timeline on the bird flu virus research debate | 

One of Humanosphere’s contributors and a leading global health blogger, Jaclyn Schiff, has prepared this excellent — and beautiful — timeline of news reports on the H5N1 research debate:

Five reasons not to panic about the bird flu experiments | 

Flickr, hugovk

News analysis

The scientific community is in serious kerfuffle right now about whether or not to publish the details of certain bird flu virus experiments.

Angry words are flying back and forth between experts – much like the proverbial behavior of chickens with their heads cut off.

One commentator for Scientific American has even suggested banning all such research.

It’s all a bit much, and probably not good for science or for our global health. I would like to offer five reasons not to panic, but first the background:

The fear among some experts is that terrorists could repeat the experiments, in which genetically altered bird flu viruses, H5N1, were made more easy to transmit in mammals, presumably also in humans.

Based on this, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has suggested censoring some of the research — redacting key portions of it. A few weeks ago, the scientific community agreed to a temporary moratorium on this research while the issues got hashed out.

There are persuasive arguments on both sides of this debate weighing the goal of reducing risk vs. the need for open exchange of knowledge.

But in some ways it’s not a fair fight. Continue reading

Altered skeeter update: Infecting mosquitoes to fight dengue | 

Flickr, Gustavo

The idea of altering mosquitoes to fight disease appears to be quite contagious.

It’s almost become a news category unto itself, with at least a story every month or so involving something like:


Scientists in Australia want to expand upon successful field tests indicating that infecting mosquitoes with a particular bacteria, known as Wolbachia, prevents the bugs from transmitting the dengue virus.


Dengue cases over time

Dengue, also known as dengue fever or “break-bone” fever, is exploding worldwide and so there are a number of efforts underway to stave off the epidemic, including finding a vaccine and, well, messing with mosquitoes.

Here are a number of good stories on the latest strategy aimed at fighting disease by messing with mosquitoes:

NPR:  Better you than me: Scientists sicken mosquitoes to stop dengue

WashPost: Field tests show bacterial oddball may be a dengue destroyer

Nature News: Bacterium offers way to control dengue fever

Guardian: Injecting mosquitoes with bacteria could stop dengue fever

Few of the news reports go into much detail scrutinizing the potential adverse side-effects, whether to humans, the environment or the skeeters, but that’s routine for news stories based on early stage scientific studies.

The bacterium, Wolbachia, is a common insect infector and is widely regarded as fairly benign if not downright beneficial. Still, you never know when you fool with Mother Nature — which is why we do phased scientific testing.

Another problem with any intervention is evolution, aka resistance. Bugs have a way of finding ways around things that get in their way. Still, the scientists say, if this approach can work for a decade or so we will do much to hold the dengue explosion at bay.

I’ll be writing more later about the dengue vaccine research, which is perhaps less exciting than manipulating skeeters but perhaps more feasible.


Two views on East Africa crisis: Famine is a crime; famine is bad science | 

As the United Nations and the international community ramps up to airlift food and supplies into East Africa, mostly for starving Somali refugees, two perspectives on this crisis seemed especially interesting to me.

In Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny contends that, in this day and age, allowing a famine to occur is basically a crime against humanity:

For all its horror, starvation is also one of the simpler forms of mortality to prevent — it just takes food.  Drought, poor roads, poverty — all are contributing factors to the risk of famine, but sustenance in the hands of the hungry is a pretty foolproof solution.

As a result, famine deaths in the modern world are almost always the result of deliberate acts on the part of governing authorities. That is why widespread starvation is a crime against humanity and the leaders who abet it should be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

That might sound a little melodramatic, but read his argument. Compelling stuff.

On a different line of thought, David Dickson, editor of the Science and Development Network, contends that the UN, Western powers and aid organizations could have been well-prepared for this crisis — if they had paid any attention to the scientific evidence reported by weather and drought prediction experts.

Dickson writes:

Earlier this week, the UN declared the drought in southern Somalia had become so bad that it could be officially declared a famine — the first time the word had been applied to this region in almost 20 years.

The news came as little surprise to agencies that had been monitoring the lack of rainfall over the past year, which is partly linked to the La Niña event in the Pacific Ocean. They had predicted that a widescale shortage of food was highly likely to occur.