Hard News by Russell Brown

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  • Ian Dalziel,

    And Marie Curie, to add a little gender balance, was a living saint.

    I too, have seen glowing reports!

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7892 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    Joe, you might want to revise your categorisation of Mengele as "brilliant":

    The few concentration camp tests that pursued worthwhile ends, like testing the safety of novel antibiotics, were being duplicated elsewhere under humane conditions and with more reliable results.

    Mengele is a rubbish example of pure research untrammelled by ethics:

    It is clear that, despite the stated purpose for which he was sent to Auschwitz, Mengele's experimentation had absolutely nothing to do with true scientific research, and was instead the result of one man's ambitious and zealous adherence to the Nazi vision of Aryan supremacy.

    It's either ignorant or mendacious to introduce this guy into a debate over cow welfare. Claiming that his patients, which included twins he sewed together to attempt to create conjoined twins, could be said to have received better care than in the hospital system, well, that kind of disqualifies you from rational debate.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Peter Ashby,

    @Dyan Campbell

    I happen to have met Lewis Wolpert and worked with and for two of his ex PhD students in fact. He would not disagree with anything I wrote in my previous post. I bet he is just as aware of lateral gene transfer (the technical term for gene swapping) as I am. We would agree that on the basis of the precautionary principle the first generation GM plants should not have had an antibiotic resistance gene. At the time hit and run techniques were all the rage, so it was really just laziness. In the lab we only put antibiotic resistance genes into bugs and cells that cannot escape the lab.

    Dundee, Scotland • Since May 2007 • 425 posts Report Reply

  • Peter Ashby,

    @Sacha

    I get the shirts, but the legwear implies a strong mutation. Long gene from the father and intermediate length from the mother has warped into extreme shortness with headgear. Could be a form of homeotic mutation I guess.

    Dundee, Scotland • Since May 2007 • 425 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Oh FFS Bart, nobody's comparing you to a war criminal just because you happen to be a scientist. Nor was I deliberately setting out to offend you.

    It did come across as provocative. A lesser man than Bart might not have responded in such a measured fashion.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22756 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    I bet he is just as aware of lateral gene transfer ... We would agree that ... the first generation GM plants should not have had an antibiotic resistance gene.

    I wasn't laziness at all. The question of whether the Kanamycin resistance gene should be used was considered in great detail by the scientists doing the work (pers. comm.) and more importantly by the FDA and the EPA.

    Two factors eventually made the regulatory authorities rule in favour of release.
    The first was that kanamycin was no longer used as an antibiotic in humans. So it's relevance for human pathogen resistance was nil.
    The second reason was that when the issue of horizontal gene transfer was raised they decided to have a look and see how widespread the kan resistance gene was in the wild. What they found was the gene was everywhere. Pretty much any soil sample had bacteria containing the gene.

    So given it had no relevance for human health and given that even if it did move from the plants out to the wild (unlikely in anything less than 10000 year timescales but theoretically possible) then it would not change the environment at all because it was already out there.

    It's worth noting that the gene originally came from a phage (a virus that infects bacteria) which explains why it is so widespread in the wild.

    The only reason it is being removed from second generation transgenic plants is because of perception. There really is no scientific reason for caring that the plants have the kan resistance gene.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    While I'm happy to admit that my example was somewhat extreme, I still believe that it's a perfectly valid illustration of what can and does happen when 'pure' research is conducted without ethical oversight.

    But nobody is advocating research without ethical oversight. Surely we are discussing is the stringency of the oversight, and the nature of those ethics. Bringing up the case of no oversight and the terrible consequences is irrelevant, except as a rhetorical device. OOGA-BOOGA!

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3122 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    OOGA-BOOGA!

    You made a funny face while typing that didn't you?

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    But nobody is advocating research without ethical oversight.

    Besides, Mengele's experiments were carried out with ethical oversight. It just happened to be the ethics of Nazis. Whereas now I think the concern is that foremost in the mind of the researchers are the needs of corporations (including state-owned commercial entities) and that in the long term these objectives can run counter to the social good, therefore strong regulations must be put in place to restore the balance. I don't think the principle is wrong, but then of course the issue becomes how you manage it in practice, and whether politicians and the public can evaluate the merits of a scientific enterprise in a rational fashion. Our collective scientific illiteracy plays a big part in this.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    A lesser man

    All right I'll get on the bike tonight!

    I've been guilty of similar overstatements myself so I'm comfortable ignoring them and just moving on to the meat of the discussion.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    foremost in the mind of the researchers are the needs of corporations (including state-owned commercial entities)

    Well I know that my bosses would prefer that this was true, but it isn't. One of the most frustrating things about managing scientists is that we actually don't give much of a rats arse about commercial goals. Although there is considerable satisfaction for many from improving the lot of farmers and orchardists.

    We have become very good at presenting our scientific goals as if they were commercial goals but that really is just most of us faking it for the men in suits. You don't get a PhD because you are interested in commercial goals.

    The idea that we would set aside our moral compass for the desires of the company is really hard to believe when you actually talk to the scientists.

    That isn't to say we shouldn't have ethical oversight. All I have argued for is a more reasonable attitude to GM because at the moment the regulations effectively ban research outside the lab and that isn't what I believe to be reasonable ethical oversight.

    And yes I know some field trials have been done but the problem is that only the trials promising the greatest commercial benefit can be justified because of the expense. Essentially promoting exactly the motivation you, and I, are most concerned about.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    I don't think the principle is wrong, but then of course the issue becomes how you manage it in practice, and whether politicians and the public can evaluate the merits of a scientific enterprise in a rational fashion. Our collective scientific illiteracy plays a big part in this.

    Where I've ended up with GE, after being relatively opposed to it about 10 years ago, is "informed engagement":

    1. I don't think GE is any worse or better than other forms of meddling with nature that we do. Witness the Gulf at present for an example. It's a technology which can have negative and positive impacts. It's how we use it that matters.

    2. Even if NZ outright bans it happening here, we just import it all anyway in products, so our ban would just be pushing the "risk" onto other countries. I'd much rather NZ government funded scientists were pushing the boundaries of science than some genius in the basement of Monsanto with no oversight.

    3. I'd much rather us actively engage with the technology and embrace it's good points and minimise the negative points. It seems to me that the only way that can happen is through controls over it which are strong without being repressive (I don't know enough about the current scheme to say where it is, but certainly people have indicated that it is repressive), and a progressive scheme for movement from lab to greenhouse to field tests to general release which is rigorously debated by scientists independent of companies who have profit motive. That means government needs to get involved and put some money forward and the normal scientific process of peer review of methods, data, and conclusions needs to be followed.

    4. There are going to be mistakes. I think they'll be the same sorts of mistakes humans have been making throughout their history and we need to minimise them through an open process of engagement with the technology in a responsible manner. I just don't believe that the NZ scientific community is going to run the sorts of risks that people raise as worst case scenarios. Responsible development can help push irresponsible development out of the field. I don't like the fact that something went wrong with three cows who were part of an experiment, but what I'd like to see is oversight which ensures that nothing unethical was done, the animals were treated properly, the experiment was reasonable given the knowlege that we have and the potential for it to go wrong, and the correct process was followed to minimise harm. We need to remember that lots of unpleasant things happen to animals in scientific testing, mice get given all sorts of human diseases all the time for testing of medicine, it's the GE ones that get the headlines.

    5. I think end results should be transparent to the consumer, and that includes being able to look at packaging and figure out what's in it. People have the right to know what they're eating, without wanting to be paranoid about it and slap big stickers on everything.

    (our collective scientific illiteracy is a problem, but I think it's a general problem in many scientific fields, and it hasn't stopped them going ahead with their work)

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    I don't like the fact that something went wrong with three cows who were part of an experiment, but what I'd like to see is oversight which ensures that nothing unethical was done, the animals were treated properly, the experiment was reasonable given the knowlege that we have and the potential for it to go wrong, and the correct process was followed to minimise harm.

    From what Bart's said, that's exactly what happened. Sometimes shit just happens, no matter how well-intentioned the actions in the lead-up. Science is not a risk-free activity. A big problem is that people like Joe (I think it was Joe) want perfection in experimental outcomes and risk predictions. As was pointed out, if you know precisely what's going to happen you don't need to do an experiment: the definition of experiment, after all, is to carry out an activity to determine the outcome.

    our collective scientific illiteracy is a problem

    Some complaints to the Press Council and the BSA, upheld and with "stiff" penalties, for hysterical, unbalanced reporting on matters scientific would help. Slapping a few reporters for their breathless regurgitation of the anti-vaccination shit, for example, would've given a bit of space for counter points to be aired. A big problem is that all that most people get to hear about big-issue science is the heavily-slanted crap that passes through the MSM. Trying to enforce standards of real balance, not just pseudo balance, would be good. I point to the treatment of Croskie (he's the iSST front, right? I get him and McThicker confused) on Breakfast as a perfect example, both of the problem and of a somewhat-desirable outcome.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    There was a relevant article in the Otago University Alumni magazine, about nanotechnology, quoting Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan, Director of Otago's Centre of Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies. I'll quote some from near the end which addresses this discussion:

    The problem with worst-case scenarios – be it Facebook causing delinquency or the Hadron Collider sucking us into a black hole – suggests Gavaghan, is that the mere suggestion of a catastrophic outcome is enough to capture the imagination and generate fears of risks not worth taking.

    By comparison, issues around genetic selection are simple. “The technology might be new, but the questions it raises are not.

    “They might be about fairness, identity, utility, autonomy, what we owe future generations. We can think of them and list them and come up with a process for working through the ethical issues and make some sort of sense of the conclusions. And we have a pretty good idea what the different outcomes will look like. But with something like nanotechnology – or some of the new neurotechnologies – there’s still so much we don’t know about the science and it’s difficult to come up with the programme of empirical studies that would help quantify the claims and concerns.”

    One must also be mindful of how we position ourselves in terms of our international peers. “If our regulatory framework is not broadly in line with other countries’, our scientists and businesses will simply take their work to the most supportive environment.”

    Given this, what can the law hope to achieve?

    First, suggests Gavaghan, we need to decide how we want to think about the problem. “Do we want protection and control, or do we want information and the freedom to make our own decisions? Do we want to prioritise innovation or err on the side of caution? To some extent, it comes down to the political zeitgeist of New Zealand.”

    (Otago Magazine 26)

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    ultimately, everything is mutable
    by whatever agency...

    Interesting to see the examples of breeding tinkering (Killer Bees), introducing alien species
    (the silver Carp in the US) and environmental/societal change (the bird flocks
    in Rome) on the Super Swarms doco on
    TV One last night... (Pt 2 next week)
    What a fabulous planet we share...
    (first do no harm...)

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7892 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Well I know that my bosses would prefer that this was true, but it isn't. One of the most frustrating things about managing scientists is that we actually don't give much of a rats arse about commercial goals.

    With all due respect, I'm going to maintain a certain dose of scepticism concerning your ability to operate independently of those goals. Not that there's anything wrong with that per se.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    The bird flocks over Rome on Super Swarms is one of the most amazing things I've seen. If that didn't inspire the black smoke off Lost...

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    If we're going there, I understand Einstein and Oppenheimer were both top blokes and were in no way pawns of government or commercial interests.

    Er, this is sarcasm, right? Because Oppenheimer built the atomic bomb.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1452 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Nah, that was his own pet project. He liked tinkering in the old shed. (Again, though, he did that with plenty of political oversight and an explicit mandate. That is not the issue that people have with genetic modification.)

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • recordari,

    Er, this is sarcasm, right? Because Oppenheimer built the atomic bomb.

    He also tried to move in on Linus Pauling's wife! Unforgivable! Oh, yeah, and that atomic bomb thing.

    In related news, Pauling's second Nobel (Peace) Prize was for the banning of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Coincidence?

    AUCKLAND • Since Dec 2009 • 2607 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    Einstein et al went to the US government and said "hey, the Nazis might be building a nuclear bomb, we should research this too." Einstein later regretted this after discovering that the Nazis weren't making as much progress as he'd thought.

    Oppenheimer had his security clearance revoked during the McCarthy era, after jokingly saying (while being secretly taped) that he was a member of every Communist front on the West Coast.

    So it's one thing to have built a nuclear bomb, it's a whole other thing to be a pawn of the government. If you can't work for the government, and you can't work for commercial interests, without being accused of being a pawn of either, then who can scientists work for without having to fend off presumptions of bias? Other professions have working codes of ethics. Do we stop journalists reporting on some subjects because some papers have editorial biases?

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    Er, this is sarcasm, right? Because Oppenheimer built the atomic bomb.

    Well, not by himself.

    @Dyan Campbell
    I happen to have met Lewis Wolpert and worked with and for two of his ex PhD students in fact. He would not disagree with anything I wrote in my previous post.

    Aw, big whoop. I've got a picture of myself he took of me at his talk... he's one of my dearest friends - I don't have to buy his books 'cause he sends 'em to me... AND he told me I reminded him tremendously of Richard Feynman. Plus he wanted introduce me to Watson and Crick - Dawkins,... everyone... but I never go to England, so... rats.

    I'll resist the urge to say "so there" but only because I'm 53 so it's unbecoming and besides I wasn't disagreeing with you in the first place. I think you meant Bart.

    What I was saying, is, Lewis would point out that GE as applied to agriculture... or anything for that matter... is not science but technology. It's pretty much the whole theme of the Unnatural Nature of Science.

    And my point is, why do we as consumers have to embrace every part of technology as if it were some kind of double-dog-dare? And why should consumers who overwhelmingly don't want a product have that product foisted on them? Whether it does harm or not?

    The argument that it's to "feed the poor" is offensive. I don't see OXFAM clamoring for the use of GE, do you? During the worst famines, huge quantities of food is destroyed... because markets collapse. Is GE good for developing countries? Because again, their farmers are really not clamoring for this product.

    The patenting of food genes is terrifying because it is a commercial venture.

    And the assumption that those wishing to apply any GE technology in a cavalier way, thinking we can predict much in nature is... silly. You can predict specific results for specific conditions. But you haven't really got a clue what the bears have to do with the flies, so to speak. A lot of things depend on a lot of things. It's a web of life, not a sequence of life.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    If you can't work for the government, and you can't work for commercial interests, without being accused of being a pawn of either, then who can scientists work for without having to fend off presumptions of bias?

    There's a difference between merely working for the government and working on the atomic bomb.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1452 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    If you can't work for the government, and you can't work for commercial interests, without being accused of being a pawn of either, then who can scientists work for without having to fend off presumptions of bias?

    In both cases you are describing professionals with a scientific background working in the field of technology rather than scientists. Understand the particular job description and your relationship to your employer and there is no presumption of bias to fend off.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

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