In 2004 I described the basis of attacks on the MMR vaccine as ‘unsubstantiated speculation masquerading as science’, and finished the piece: ‘I despair.’ Measles is now busier in Europe than it was fifteen years ago.
A small crowd gathered on Saturday outside the Ministry of Defence in Westminster, just across from Downing Street, for the second iteration of the March for Science. Last year’s event, which nucleated around the specific threat posed to American scientists by the incoming Trump administration, drew tens of thousands of people to Washington DC, and more than a million more across 200 cities worldwide. The number in London was reported to be 10,000. This year there were fewer than a hundred.
'I'll interview you in a minute,' a man with a dictaphone said to me at the entrance to the Science Museum on Saturday. A sociologist from Brunel University, he was there to conduct field research, asking people why they were on the March for Science. The crowd – archaeologists and neuroscientists, physicists and psychologists, academics and the 'sci-curious' – was quieter than the average London protest, chanting occasionally: 'What do we want? Evidence-based research. When do we want it? After peer review.'
There’s been excitement this week at the announcement of a new antibiotic. Called teixobactin by its discoverers, it is produced by a soil bacterium, also new to science because it needed the development of a novel system to enable it to grow and be tested in the laboratory for antibiotic production.
The big question for virologists in recent years is why H5N1 influenza hasn’t mutated to cause a pandemic. It is as feeble today at spreading from person to person as it was in 1997, when it first drew attention to itself through a dramatic chicken-to-human outbreak in Hong Kong. H5N1 human infections are very nasty with a high mortality, But they are very hard to catch. To start growing, the virus has to get deep into the lungs. The surest way for this to happen is to be a South East Asian cockfighter. They stimulate the birds by spitting down their throats; the birds spit back.
Disappointment is the frequent outcome of science’s yearning to be honoured and heeded by politics. For scientists appalled by George W. Bush’s indifference to scientific data and values, candidate Obama looked so promising. And even more so when he vowed in his inaugural address to ‘restore science to its rightful place’. A few months later, he told the National Academy of Sciences: ‘Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.’ Nearly three years later the ‘rightful place’ is still unspecified, and the wants and ways of science have not triumphed over the needs and methods of electoral politics. Silly to think they ever would.
Medical research has long been the darling of American politics, left and right, in times rich and poor. Now, however, the veneration of spending cuts and deficit reduction, from the Tea Party to the White House, is threatening the world’s greatest bankroll for medical science, the National Institutes of Health. The biomedical establishment is resounding with warnings of delayed cures for cancer, blighted scientific careers, and the rise of China. The financial threat has also inspired unusually frank talk about the way NIH spends its money, large amounts of which never get to the laboratory.
In a piece on rainbows in the LRB in 2002, Peter Campbell wrote: There are also rare phenomena to take account of, like cloud bows, which are the very pale rainbows you might see from the window of a plane, and things which are hard to see, like supernumerary rainbows.
Cell suicide by a programmed process – apoptosis – is necessary for human health. It starts long before birth, sculpting us as embryos. It is essential for the proper functioning of our immune systems and of organs that continually produce new cells, like the intestines and bone marrow. When it goes wrong, it can lead to strokes, heart attacks and cancer. Its subversion by microbes plays a crucial role in Aids and many lethal infections. Todd Rider and his colleagues at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory may have found a way to use the enzymes that make it happen – caspases – as antiviral agents.
Further to Carl Elliott's piece in the currentLRB on the dangers of clinical trials, here's Elliott's account of the case of a schizophrenic young man who killed himself while taking part in a psychiatric drug trial at the University of Minnesota.
Some days anything will do as news. For example, we learn from the BBC's Earth News that some (though not all) toads may (or may not) have advance warning of earthquakes. Unfortunately, the toad watchers, having serendipitously observed toads leaving home a few days before the 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck l'Aquila in 2009, couldn't quite put their finger on how the toads sensed it was on its way. A bit of a rumble, I shouldn't wonder. But since they were 74 km away, they might just have decided to have a weekend break, since only mating pairs or males took off – spinster toads stayed home. On top of the unknowability of what, how and if the toads knew, the report rather eeyoreishly adds that: