Monday, March 3, 2014

Genetically-modified food is not going to give you cancer

Last week PSPG and the Penn Biotech Group hosted Dr. Val Giddings, President and CEO of the consulting firm PrometheusAB and Senior Science Policy Fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Dr. Giddings specializes in issues concerning genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) or as he prefers to call them, “biotech-improved” organisms, which have been genetically engineered to have certain beneficial traits. This usually means that a gene from one organism is inserted into the genome of a different organism to alter its properties or behavior in some beneficial way. GMO crops are frequently altered to improve tolerance to herbicides (think RoundUp) and resistance to insects and pathogens. They can also be modified to change their agronomic qualities (how/when they grow) which helps farmers to be more productive. Crops can also be modified to improve their quality: for example Golden Rice has been engineered to produce beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which is an essential nutrient that many children in developing countries don’t get enough of1,2.  GMO crops are quite prevalent within the US agriculture, with over 90% of soybeans, 80% of cotton and 75% of corn crops in the US being genetically modified in some way3. Outside of the US, GMO crops are grown in 27 countries by 18 million farmers, most of whom are smallholders in developing countries4. So what are the consequences of all these genetic modifications in our food supply?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The unintended impact of impact factors

Dr. Mickey Marks of UPenn stopped by PSPG yesterday to discuss the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) which calls for new metrics to determine the value of scientific contributions. The system in question is the Thomson Reuters’ Impact Factor (IF) which was developed in the 1970s to help libraries decide which journals to curate. Since then IF has taken on an inflated level of importance that can even influence promotional and hiring decisions.  But can a single number really summarize the value of a scientific publication?
IF is calculated by dividing the average number of citations by the number of citable articles a journal has published over the last two years. One reason Dr. Marks became involved in DORA is because he is co-editor at a journal whose IF had been steadily dropping over the last few years, a trend experienced by numerous other cell biology journals. This led many in the field to question whether IF was really accurate and useful. As you might imagine there are many factors that can skew IF one way or another: for example, in some fields papers are slower to catch on and might not start accumulating citations until well past the two year IF has been calculated. Journal editors can game the system by reducing the number of “citable” articles they publish: citable articles must be a certain length, so if a journal publishes many short articles they can decrease the denominator and inflate their IF. So how reliable is the IF system? Are journals with a high IF really presenting the best science? A few years ago the editors at one journal (Infection and Immunity) set out to address that very question and the answer may (or may not) surprise you. The editors found a strong correlation between IF and retractions (see graph).

Infect. Immun. October 2011 vol. 79 no. 10 3855-3859
          Why are these high impact journals forced to retract at such a higher rate? It might be because these editors are looking for sexy science (because that’s what sells) and might be willing to overlook sloppy research conduct to print an exciting story. Another reason may be that researchers are under extreme pressure to publish in these journals and are willing to omit inconsistent data and allow mistakes and even misconduct slip through to keep the story neat. And this brings us to the real problem presented by IF: in some circles individual researchers’ scientific contributions are being judged almost entirely on what journals they publish in. Scientists learn very early in their careers that if you want a faculty job you need to publish in Science, Nature and Cell. This is because it is faster and easier to draw conclusions based on a journal’s reputation rather than actually read an applicant’s publications.
There are a few alternatives to IF, including Eigenfactor and SCImago which are similar to IF but take into account the overall impact of each journal, and Google’s PageRank which ranks journals based on search engine results. These alternatives generally result in similar rankings to IF, however. The real issue isn’t the rankings themselves but how we as scientists use them. If the system is going to change it will have to start with us.  Scientists must decide together to de-emphasize impact factors and publication rankings when making decisions about promotions, hirings and grants.

Nicole Aiello
PSPG Communications

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bioethics/Policy Discussion: 23andMe vs. FDA

On Wednesday, members of the Penn Science Policy Group met to discuss the current regulatory friction between the FDA and the genetic testing company 23andMe.

23andMe provides personalized DNA results that are interpreted to provide information about ancestry and health risks for various diseases. Because the results provided by 23andMe border on medical information, the FDA has been working closely with the company since 2009 to ensure that their marketing and analysis were accurate and in accordance with federal regulations. However, in May of 2013 23andMe ceased communications with the FDA and simultaneously ramped up marketing of their Personal Genome Service (PGS) for providing “health reports on 254 diseases and conditions.” In retaliation, the FDA sent a letter to 23andMe on Nov 22 warning them to stop marketing their PGS without approval or face harsh regulatory actions. This letter sparked a public debate about how much regulation should be imposed on this new technology, which was the focus of our discussion on Wednesday.

The question at the heart of the debate is: do individuals have the right to access their own genetic information (and interpretations of it) without medical (and hence FDA) oversight?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dr. Richard Calderone stopped by PSPG last week to talk about the masters program in Science Policy and Advocacy at Georgetown University. Dr. Calderone is a microbiologist with an active laboratory but he also advises lawmakers on public health issues, especially those involving infectious diseases. A few years ago Dr. Calderone started the science policy masters program which was modeled after an undergraduate certificate program in policy that already existed at Georgetown. Students in this interdisciplinary masters program take courses not only on government and policy but also science classes such as microbiology, immunology and pharmacology. About 40% of graduates are currently in policy positions at places like the EPA and Research!America while many others go on to professional school (medical, dental, law). So if you're thinking about a career in science policy you might want to check out the program!

Dr. Calderone (from Georgetown University Faculty website)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Recap: Adam Katz of Research!America- How (and why) to engage Congress as a research scientist

Adam is the Policy and Advocacy Specialist at Research!America, where he leads a variety of advocacy initiatives to make science and medical research a higher national priority. When he visited PSPG on Nov. 12th he spoke about how and why scientists, especially those in academia, should engage in the political system. Academic scientists in particular are heavily supported by federal funding and taxpayers, so it is important to initiate and maintain a dialog between researchers, politicians and the American people. Research!America has conducted numerous polls to understand the relationship between these three groups, and they have found that while Americans believe scientific research should be a top priority, the public does not have a clear understanding of how this research is funded (only a small fraction of those polled identified the NIH as the main source of basic biomedical research funding). Therefore it is important that we as scientists, taxpayers and constituents take it upon ourselves to stress to our politicians the importance of the NIH and its integral role in supporting basic science research. There are many ways to make your voice heard: through email, phone calls and even in person, as PSPG has done twice this year. Mr. Katz gave excellent tips on how to address a congressperson and their staff: thank them for past support, keep it concise, lay out your concerns and follow it with a personal story, ask their opinion and reiterate the action you'd like taken. If this type of science policy work sounds like a potential career path to you, we encourage you to attend our next speaker event on Wednesday Dec. 4th at 12pm featuring Dr. Richard Calderone, director of the M.S. program in Biomedical Science Policy & Advocacy at Georgetown University.