My comments at today’s second P5 Town Hall Meeting

I am Stephen Sekula, an Assistant Professor of Physics at SMU conducting research on the ATLAS Experiment. These comments will be my own, and I will try to take a broad view. Let me begin by thanking the members of the Panel for this opportunity to speak, and let me also send my greetings to all of my friends and colleagues who are connected to this town hall. We certainly stand on the threshold of an era in particle physics where the questions are big, and the challenges to answering them are bigger. We have been presented with the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter. We have been granted a gift by the neutrino and its behavior, which lies partially within and partially outside the Standard Model. We have also been granted a new gift – the Higgs boson – which marks just how successful the Standard Model has been in the laboratory and whose properties need to be fully illuminated. But that model has not yet risen to the challenge of explaining mysteries like the nature of dark energy and dark matter. We know that something must lie beyond the Standard Model; what it is, we must discover.

There seems a general consensus in our field about these frontiers and their importance. The problem we are all faced with in the US is the reality of constrained budgets and national priorities that are not perfectly aligned with our own field’s scientific goals. This is our biggest challenge. At the end of this P5 process, while certainly the prioritization and the community consensus will be correlated with one another, they are not necessarily the same thing. We should not think of the P5 process as the end; it is the beginning of a much longer process of program-building, and there will still be left to us the work of convincing our colleagues inside and outside the field about the value of the P5 outcome.

We all know that not every project can go forward, or if they do go forward that there isn’t room for all projects to proceed with the fullest funding desired by its participants. It would seem prudent that the final report emphasize how the prioritization enables a US program that tackles these frontiers. For instance:

  • Explain clearly the measurements that define each area of the US program, and their role in advancing our understanding in that frontier. Articulating this will help students and post-docs see how and where they can advance their skills and leadership in this field.
  • More importantly, explain how the outcomes of those measurements avoid scientific dead ends and point the way to the next stage of the US program. How will continuity be assured by this prioritization? Answering this is how we will continue to attract and retain students and post-docs, and maintain excitement and interest in the field.
  • Explain how each endeavour leaves open the possibility for serendipitous discovery, which has always been an important part of defining new directions in the field. After all, it is the possibility of discovery that ultimately drives us into and forward through the field, even in hard budget times.

The worst thing we can do is assume that the prioritization speaks for itself. It obviously cannot. The report should have a voice that speaks for the scientific value of the prioritizaton, and how it advances US science by advancing US high-energy physics into the great frontiers of our time: dark energy, dark matter, and the nature of what lies within and beyond the Standard Model.

I thank you for your time and consideration.

Getting the “science” right in “science policy”: labeling food as “GMO”

I’ve been engaged in a small conversation on a social network regarding the labeling of food as “genetically modified.” I’ve written specific thoughts about the scientific problems with that labeling recently in this blog [1]. I thought it might be useful to explain here how I got engaged in this most recent conversation, which is not yet concluded (I think), and what I’ve said for my part in the conversation.

It started when I noticed that somebody on my “following” list had re-posted comments from another person (whom I am not following). The comments were in reference to the editors of Scientific American coming out in writing as being against GMO food labeling [2], for all the reasons that scientific organizations, like the AAAS, have also come out against them: they are scientifically inaccurate, and thus are the use of bad science to inform science-based policy. The editors state their position clearly and crisply, “Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health . . . ”

The comments on this article that made some vague implications about consumer choice and the “naivety of scientists,” with heavy overtones of having conflated several issues – some scientific and some not – into one straw man issue. The original poster complained that the Scientific American editors ” . . . can’t possibly let people have the facts . . . ” and referred to the naivety of scientists regarding the substance of the issue, which was not about the science but rather about control of the world’s food chain (with specific reference to Monsanto).

Both the original issue – GMO food labeling – and the comments that started me talking about this,  grossly oversimplify the science (biology and genetic modification), setting up a straw man to be knocked down (“GMOs”), and then risk achieving the wrong goal. The right goal has nothing to do with genetic modification itself, but rather with the practices of some of the larger companies that employ this and many other practices in a way that creates a proprietary and protected food market under their control.

I posted a response to the person who shared the comments, saying,

I am curious: why do you believe that labeling food as “GMO” (genetically modified organism) will better inform consumers? All food – organic and otherwise – is genetically modified. It’s one thing to oppose food made by a food maker because of their economic or political practices; but to insist on non-scientific labeling of food is not the solution. I think, what you probably prefer, is clearer labeling about who made the food. That’s scientifically accurate, and lets consumers decide if they will send their money to, for instance, Monsanto. Labeling a food as “GMO” implies something bad or different about it; that’s scientifically inaccurate, since all food is genetically modified, only with varying degrees of control (the invention of agriculture was the invention of human genetic modification of plants through breeding and control – even organic farming selects winning traits and breeds out losing ones, and that’s the definition of “GMO”).

Scientists oppose this not out of naivete, but out of the desire for scientific accuracy in policy making. It’s a complete mis-representation of food science and biology to imply that GMO = bad. It’s a different thing to insist companies clearly label themselves as the manufacturer so consumers can make clear choices to spend currency on one company or another.

I want Monsanto to answer for their practices, and pay the price for their shady business in the marketplace. But when science is thrust into the public sphere, I also want it accurately represented in policy. GMO labeling, as currently pursued in states, in inaccurate and represents a gross misunderstanding of biology.

Another person engaged in the conversation, which was great, but seemed to have missed the point of what I was saying. They again conflated “food labeling” with “labeling GMO food” – not the same things. I support labeling food . . . just not using the straw man of “GMO,” but rather for the substantive cause of mapping the food supply, its origins, its producers, and its handlers. “GMO” is useless, in that sense.

Here was my reply to the comment I received:

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying:

  • I support labeling food to better indicate where and by whom it was produced; I would argue that the pinnacle of this labeling process would be full food-chain tracking (e.g. to help in unraveling food-born disease outbreaks).
  • I support corporate food policy reform, especially regarding the patenting of genetic modifications; I support the enforcement of “publish all scientific trials” about food and drugs (including null results, so that we can actually assess the rate at which foods/drugs have the claimed benefits).
  • However, since all food is genetically modified, if one is going to label some foods as “GMO” then scientifically one must label all food as “GMO.” Since science is being injected into this particular policy discussion, the science must be correct. As a citizen scientist, I will not stand idle while people misappropriate the field and its terminology and, in doing so, achieve the wrong political and policy end. Nobody has studied the environmental or health effects of every plant humans have modified since inventing agriculture; nonetheless, every time we bred for certain traits we modified, in a gross and largely uncontrolled way, the genomes of animals and plants – with unknown repercussions that are potentially far worse and far less-well-understood than the precision genetic modifications we are capable of executing now (along with double-blind studies, etc.).

I suspect that, at the real core of this debate is a desire to curb the business practices of large food corporations – food and gene patents, control of food commodity markets, and crushing family farms under legions of lawyers. I believe that my first two bullets above would go a long way to addressing that issue, without misrepresenting genetic modification as the straw man to be knocked down.

When you say “commonly consider” in reference to genetic modification and its definition, I would argue that using “common knowledge” as a defense of labeling is akin to advocating mob rule in science, and thus in science-based policy. Majority opinion does not rule in science; if that were the case, we’d have to teach astrology along side astronomy (since 50% of U.S. residents believe in astrology, that the stars decide our fate). I reject the notion of applying common public misconceptions of biology to then defend the labeling of food as “GMO.”

Rather than foster public misconception of science, I rather support the idea of better educating the public on matters of science – including biology, genetics, food science, and related issues – while at the same time curbing corporate overreach into the pantry and decisions made about food. These are two separate issues, in reality. GMO food labeling conflates them in a bad way that misrepresents science, and doesn’t actually address the real problem that, I think, people actually want to solve.

I care deeply about accurate use of science when informing science-based policy. To label one food as “GMO” is to completely get the core of biology incorrect. Besides, what people really want is to hold companies accountable for their behavior in the marketplace. Bastardizing science in the name of this quest will only do two things: breed fundamental misconceptions about science that will inhibit our society’s ability to function in a world that demands more creativity and innovation through science; and fail to accomplish the real goal, which is curbing or putting more checks on corporate power in a global economy where control of the food supply is, in fact, at stake.

[1] “Why you believe what you believe” (August 11, 2013)

[2] “Labels for GMO foods are a bad idea.” (Scientific American, August, 2013)

Vetoing a vaccine that saves women’s lives

“It’s based on what I lived and what I know. Women don’t care about contraception. They care about jobs and the economy and raising their families and all of those things . . . ” (from an interview on the April 3, 2012 airing of “The View”). Apparently, Gov. Haley also thinks they don’t care about having access to a vaccine that prevents more illness and deaths than polio ever caused.

I am saddened by the news that South Carolina’s governor has chosen a path of scientific and medical ignorance and vetoed a bill that would have provided young girls free access to the HPV vaccine, which is recommended for girls as young as 12 to head off the possible transmission of HPV (which causes the majority of cervical cancers) before they are most likely to become fully sexually active [1].

I have written about the scientific issues related to this vaccination before and merely link to my comments. I have nothing new to add. A vote against HPV vaccination is an abandonment the sound science that says that the HPV Vaccine improves the quality of life for the majority of women.

“Anecdont”: http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/2011/09/17/anecdont/

I merely quote from myself:

“We see that due to the nature [diseases like polio and pertussis (whooping cough)], we have acted as a people to develop and distribute vaccination for diseases that kill far fewer people than are killed by cervical cancer.

Primary evidence gathered in randomized, double-blind trials shows that one of the two approved vaccines for HPV, Gardasil, is not only efficacious (90% success rate in preventing infection by HPV) but safe (no significant difference between placebo and the vaccine in studies of side effects). There is no additional data that clearly links rarer complications to the specific vaccine. The risk associated with taking the vaccine  is small (35 million vaccinations given with no evidence of serious side effects, suggesting a life-altering complication probability of  <0.000003%) compared to the fact that death from cervical cancer results in 0.001% of the population.

The recommendation about the age of vaccination stems from a couple of pieces of data: how many vaccinations are needed to receive complete protection and when a young woman typically becomes sexually active. The CDC has statistics on sexual activity [17]. For instance, by age 15 about 8% of women engage in oral intercourse and 26% of women engage in vaginal intercourse; rates are similar for young men. At age 14, 5.7% of young women claim to have had sex. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation [18], the median age at which first experience with sexual intercourse occurs is about age 16; that means 50% of young girls have their first sexual intercourse BEFORE age 16. If prevention is the goal, the vaccine has to be administered at an age before which the majority of sexual activity occurs.
[Texas Governor] Perry’s executive order followed the recommendations of the CDC: begin the vaccination process at age 12 because it takes about 1 year to receive all three recommended vaccinations. That means full protection from HPV occurs at around age 13. That assures that young girls are protected against HPV by the time they become sexually active.
That’s the science that informs the policy discussion.”

[1] http://tfninsider.org/2012/06/20/south-carolina-governor-vetoes-hpv-vaccine-bill/

[17] (Ref. 17 from the post I linked to above is the CDC statistics on women and the frequency of sexual activity at different ages. This is the science that informs the decision about when to vaccinate for HPV) http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ad/ad362.pdf and “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2002″ (PDF). Vital and Health Statistics. National Center for Health Statistics. 2002. Retrieved 2008-04-29.

[18] Again, this is a reference from my previous essay on this subject, “Anecdont.” http://www.kff.org/youthhivstds/upload/U-S-Teen-Sexual-Activity-Fact-Sheet.pdf

An Open Letter To American Airlines: No Platform for AVN

20120421-132725.jpg
A child infected with measles, a disease easily prevented with a simple vaccination. From http://www.flickr.com/photos/julien_harneis/4140374881/

Please find below the letter I just sent to American Airlines pertaining to the claim by the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) press release claiming that AA will give them a platform for their anti-vaccination message.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I was recently disturbed to see this press release from the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN):

AVN Information to air on American Airlines

This group, mis-named to sound as if they promote the use of vaccines to prevent disease, actively works against the practice of vaccinating children against easily treated, but dangerous, diseases. They are claiming that your company will give them airtime on your in-flight media network and your “American Way” magazine.

I am a frequent traveler on American Airlines. I fly routinely between the U.S. and Europe and have come to rely on your excellent service to Geneva via London. I also regularly use your airline to visit my family in Wisconsin, which includes my four nieces and nephews, all of whom are protected against whooping cough, measles, and other diseases thanks to vaccines. If it is true that you are planning to air the view of AVN on your in-flight media services, I will refuse to fly on your airline for 2 years and instead give my money to your competitors, such as United Airlines (who also offer excellent and competitive service to Geneva and the Midwest).

There is over 100 years of credible, confirmed, scientific evidence for the benefits of childhood and adulthood vaccination against disease. There is no – and I mean ZERO – credible scientific evidence linking vaccines to such serious diseases as autism. Do not give AVN a platform.

Sincerely,
Steve Sekula