Monthly Archives: November 2015

SCIENCE AND THE GOVERNMENT: WHAT’S RIGHT AND WHAT’S WRONG? PART I. 

US national government interacts with everything and everyone, including science, research, and scientists! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
US national government interacts with everything and everyone, including science, research, and scientists!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Science in the United States (US) directly interacts with people,businesses, educational institutions, the health system, engineers, students, media, etc.  One of the very largest and most extensive interactions of science is with the US national government.  This 2-part essay takes a critical look at the many involvements of our government with science, research,, and scientists; Part I introduces the different means and purposes of government’s interactions with science.

Overview of official interactions of US government with science. 

Very many different agencies of the federal government act upon all branches of science with administrative oversight, numerous regulations, money and contracts to support research projects, new initiatives, policy directives, provision of information, public education, etc.  The larger agencies specialized for science include the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, Agricultural Research Service, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, National Academy of Sciences, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Library of Medicine, etc.  All these have large administrative staffs, large budgets, and large areas of action.  In addition, many branches and agencies of the military also deal with science.  Official representative scientists are appointed as advisers to the President, Congress, and other governmental bodies.  One can only conclude that the national government is authorized to actively interact with science, technology, and scientists, at many different levels.

Money is at the center of all government interactions with science!  

Money in science is required for all the expenses of conducting research studies (see: “Introduction to money in modern scientific research” ).  For science at universities, several government agencies support research expenditures by awarding competitive grants to faculty scientists proposing important projects.  Thus, external money is at the heart of all interactions between the government and university scientists; many rules and regulations follow the acceptance of any research grant award.  Government uses this dependence upon federal research grants to control university science and direct faculty research into certain directions.

Governmental control of science and research. 

US government administrators make policy directives and issue numerous regulations for science, research, education, and medical activities.  As specific examples of this network for extensive control of science at universities via policies, programs, and regulations, we can now consider: (1) the Congress, which legislates the number of H1b visas issued each year for foreign scientists to be employed in the US, (2) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which  enforces safety requirements for use of radioactive materials in scientific research, (3) the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), that mandates what special features must be present in refrigerators for their use within research labs, (4) the Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to determine whether pharmaceutical products are safe and effective for patient care by physicians, and (5) the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which mandates salary levels for Postdocs researching in grant-supported labs.  These are only a few examples from the many available!

How does the government actually use science and scientists? 

Scientists often are used to provide “expert opinions and evaluations” for dealing with big problems facing the government.  Those frequently involve testimonial input that is used to justify policy decisions and positions about controversial issues (e.g., global warming, mandated use of vaccines, approval or disapproval of new drugs and public health regulations, responses to foreign epidemics, international disputes, etc.).  In response to such usage, opponents of the government’s position bring forth their own expert scientists!  Readers should  note that these controversies usually are about politics, economics, and power, rather than about science (see: “What Happens When Scientists Disagree? Part II: Why is There Such a Long Controversy About Global Warming and Climate Change?” ).  It would be much better if the government sought recommendations of expert scientists before policies are made, rather than after they are finalized!

People give enormous amounts of money for scientific research, via their taxes! 

Scientific research costs a lot of money (see:  “Why is Science so Very Expensive?  Why do Research Experiments Cost so Much?” ).  This clearly is in the national interest and deserves to be supported.  The US government pays giant amounts of dollars for: science education at schools and universities; research grants for universities, hospitals, and small businesses; clinical research trials; large special facilities for research usage; science meetings; public education about health and science; etc.  The annual budget for sponsoring all these science-related activities is many billions of dollars [1,2]. Most funding comes from taxpayers; thus, all taxpayers deserve many thanks from university scientists for supporting their research activities!

In addition to basic and applied research investigations at universities, medical schools, and hospitals, a very large amount of research and development also takes place at industrial laboratories.  All the research investigations in industries costs a huge number of dollars in total, and are internally paid by individual companies.

The forthcoming Part II will present both the good and bad consequences of governmental interactions with science, research, and scientists.  Special attention will be given to how the present research grant system is hurting  scientific research, rather than helping it!

 

[1]  National Science Foundation, 2015.  Table 1.  Federal obligations for research and development, by character of work, and for R&D plant: FYs 1951-2015.  Available on the internet at:  http://nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15324/pdf/tab1.pdf .

[2]  American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2015.  Trends in federal R&D, FY 1976-2016.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/DefNon_1.jpg .

 

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SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS INDEED WORK AS PARTNERS! 

 

Scientists and engineers are partners for new products and new technologies! (http:dr-monsrs.net)
Scientists and engineers are partners for new products and new technologies! (http:dr-monsrs.net)

When earlier presenting a very general introduction to science and research (see:  here! ), I stated my conviction that scientists and engineers work as partners in creating new advances in products and technologies for all of us.  I will briefly explain this viewpoint, and then will direct you to 2 thrilling videos that vividly show this profound collaboration.

What is science for?  What do scientists do?    

Scientists search for the truth and seek to understand everything.  Research investigations by scientists are a major part of their work, and these are aimed at gathering evidence (i.e., data) that answers research questions.  Scientific research is conducted in universities and small or large industries, and often utilizes specialized instrumentation and methodologies (see: “Instrumentation” and “Methodology” ).  Besides experiments in laboratories, scientific research also takes place in the field, hospitals, computer centers, and large special facilities.

Typical results of this research include determining causes and effects, understanding mechanisms at all levels, defining sequences of changes, determining structure, and, relating structure to functions.  After carefully evaluating all the data resulting from investigations, research findings and conclusions often are published within professional journals and presented at annual science meetings.

What is engineering for?  What do engineers do? 

Engineers of all kinds generally work on practical matters needed for the design, construction, modification, and improvement of discrete objects or processes that ultimately will be produced commercially.  Typical goals of engineers are to make some product cheaper to manufacture and operate, more efficient, longer lasting, faster or slower, more attractive, quieter, easier to use, more precise, etc.  To accomplish these goals, they must have much knowledge and understanding about materials, manufacturing processes, friction and lubricants, corrosion and coatings, compatibilities, ergonomics, aesthetics, etc.  Working experience also is very important here!

Engineers often seek patents rather than publications.  After carefully evaluating all aspects of their conclusions for a new or modified commercial product, the manufacturer will select one set of choices for trial production and evaluation.  If any of the predicted properties and features of the finished product do not match expectations, then further engineering must be undertaken for refinement of the design.  The end point is commercial production and widespread usage.

Relationships between the activities of scientists and engineers. 

Engineering mostly depends upon there being some previous scientific research, and basically begins where science leaves off.  It also can begin with an amateur invention.  Customers of any new or improved product only see the final output of both science and engineering together.  This final result clearly is due to a strong partnership between scientists and engineers, even though they do not often work in a side-by-side manner.

Scientific research often constructs models or theories that can determine or explain something that nobody can know for certain (e.g., how small can a transistor be?).  Based upon knowledge of physics, engineers determine how small transistors can be made with today’s technology.  These different aspects of transistors certainly are related, but also are rather separate.

Nowadays, scientists and engineers both use computers to a prominent extent.  Typical usage of computation includes data collection, designing and planning, 3-D and 4-D modeling, theoretical changes and testing, quantitating relationships, and, all analyses of experimental data.

Amazing videos you must see! 

Striking examples of the duality between scientists and engineers are shown in both of the 2 following videos.  I urge you to watch these twice!  You should first watch only for your amusement, and then watch a second time again to see how scientists and engineers both played important roles in creating the amazing new devices shown.  You might want to show these remarkable stories to your family and recommend them to your friends!

A constructed robot is an artificial bird that flies by flapping its wings! 

In the video, “A Robot that Flies Like a Bird”, Markus Fischer shows a fantastic  construction made with engineers at the Festo Corporation, a global manufacturer of components and systems for industrial automation and control technology.  This is a robot that flies similarly to a living bird, but has no feathers, no heart or brain, and doesn’t eat.  Scientific research knowledge first was used to model all the forces and aerodynamics for the flight of real birds by flapping of their wings. Then engineering investigated and decided on the many practical details needed to actually construct the robotic model bird, get it to fly by flapping its wings, and control its flight; those efforts included such engineering details as how long and wide the wings must be, dynamic angles of the flapping wing surfaces, how rapidly must the wings flap, what are the limits for weight to still permit flying by flapping, what role does the tail play, etc., etc.  What this new robot will lead to remains to be seen!

A flying human known as the “Jetman”! 

Yves Rossy was driven to try to fulfill the ancient human dream of being able to fly, so he used his  aeronautical knowledge and sky-diving experience to propose a way to do that.  Working with many detailed known parameters for powered flight, he and engineers at Breitling, a Swiss manufacturer of technical watches and chronographs, designed a set of light rigid wings  containing 4 high-tech small powerful jet engines; after strapping this onto his back, he can fly with directional control only via movements of body contours (i.e., position of head, arms, and legs, and, torsional shaping of his body).  He launches his flight by diving out of a helicopter, and usually lands with a special parachute system.  Watch the video, “Flying With Jetman”, to learn about making this new machine, see his amazing flights, listen to stories of his adventures, and laugh at his great sense of humor; he is a most fascinating man and a daring pioneer!  Note that a number of other videos about the Jetman also are available on YouTube.

Conclusions. 

These 2 exciting videos directly illustrate how science and engineering work together as strong partners.  Contributions from  both professions are vitally important, and can dramatically reveal the human spirit!

 

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HOW TO TEACH AND EXPLAIN TEMPERATURE IN EARLY SCIENCE CLASSES AT PRIMARY SCHOOLS!

 

What is Science to children? How can they best learn it in primary/grade school? (http:dr-monsrs.net)
What is Science to children? How to best teach it in grade school? (http:dr-monsrs.net)

I believe that science is everywhere and so should be taught to everyone, starting almost from the beginning of schooling.  I have previously written some of my general suggestions for teaching young children about science (see: “What is Wrong with Science Education for Children?” ).  Here, a unit for early science education in primary/grade schools (e.g., in grade 2-5) is suggested, and exemplifies that such need not even be labeled as “science”; it can easily be viewed as teaching about “daily life” or “our world”.

Class objectives in teaching and explaining temperature. 

This series of early science classes for very young students aims to cover:

(1)  how do we detect temperature (i.e., feelings, nerves);

(2)  how do we measure temperature (i.e., thermometers);

(3)  how do liquid thermometers work; temperatures of hot and cold tap water;

(4)  temperatures of children’s skin, what is “room temperature” (= air in classroom), seasons;

(5)  how do feelings of being cool or warm correspond to measured temperatures;

(6)  very basic explanations for heating and cooling of water;

(7)  temperature extremes of water (boiling, evaporating, freezing, and melting);

(8)  what happens to temperature when hot and cold tap water are mixed 1:1, and when  boiling water is removed from a hot plate and sits at room temp (i.e. measure the temps vs. time);

(9)  how quickly does one tablespoon of sugar dissolve in very hot, warm, room temp, or cold tap water?

(10) an illustrated discussion session about temperature (e.g., basic definitions and concepts; what is the temperature of: our classroom, lava from a volcano, a melting ice cube; what are snowflakes, hail, an iceberg; etc.).

Materials needed: skin temperature monitors (one for each child, and they take them home after the class #4; these could be donated by manufacturers or by large drug store chains), red-liquid (no mercury!) inexpensive thermometers (one for each table of students; must have F (or F&C) scales), disposable clear plastic drinking glasses (8-10 ounces), cold and hot tap water, ice cubes or crushed ice, hot plate and glass flask to hold boiling water, granulated sugar.

Scheduling:  I estimate needing 5-6 hours of classes (45-55 minutes each) to cover all topics 1-9.  Topic 10 is an interactive session reviewing what should have been learned from this unit on temperature, and extending their knowledge to a few new examples.  In addition to the class teacher, having one or 2 assistant teachers will be useful.  Ideally, some classes should be held in a laboratory-type room (with a table for each 4-6 students); other sessions involve presentations with projected slides or brief videos and directed discussions, and so can be given in either a standard classroom or a lab room.

Please note:      (1) Instructions, discussions, questions and answers, are given concurrently with the manipulations and observations by students during the class sessions.

(2) If use of boiling water is considered to be too risky for very young students to handle, then this can be done as a demonstration.

(3) Each class begins with 5-10 minutes of explanation about what is being studied and how the activities will proceed; the last 5-10 minutes are reserved for a brief summary of what should have been learned today.

(4) Even if forbidden, some kids undoubtedly will eat ice cubes and drink the dissolved sugar; so what?

(5) For these early classes, “atoms” are not mentioned, and “energy” can be either ignored or approximated to electricity if questions arise; these topics will be covered later.

(6) If students do not ask questions, then the teacher(s) must ask them questions!

Subsequent classes:  In the following months and years at primary school, young students can extend their new knowledge about temperature to related topics.  Direct follow-up sessions can include: liquids and solids, solutions and suspensions, oil and water, gasses and liquids, calibrating thermometers, Fahrenheit and Centigrade scales, how do skin temperature thermometers work, what is the temperature in outer space, what warms the Earth, the water cycle in Nature, etc.  Related science sessions for later classes can involve chemistry, weather, physics, pressure, energy, what are atoms, what do atoms have to do with temperature, biology, animal and plant habitats and adaptations, fever, etc.

Critical comments and discussion. 

I do not believe that memorizing some definitions means that young students understand anything at all (see:  “A Large Problem in Science Education: Memorization is Not Enough, and is Not the Same as Understanding!” ).  Young students need to relate definitions, concepts, and new knowledge to what they can see, touch, feel, taste, hear, and smell in their daily lives; then, they will learn and develop understanding!  These beliefs are utilized in the unit of class sessions described above.

Teachers for these classes have important very active roles here.  They must guide the students to do and learn, carefully watch for student safety, and, supervise and maintain focus of students with the active hands-on operations.  The more these youngsters can relate what they see and do themselves, the more they will learn; additional examples about temperature will be encountered both in subsequent courses and activities outside schools.  Thus, early knowledge about temperature will be ongoing (i.e., teachers will know this is happening when students ask them about something from their life outside school).  Later science courses can directly continue from where these initial classes end.

Almost all grade/primary school teachers now should be able to handle the sessions suggested for this early unit on temperature without much special preparation. Teachers should please adapt this suggested program of activities to fit local resources, practical limitations, and scheduling.  Please note that atoms and energy are not mentioned for this very early science teaching.  Discuss my proposal thoroughly, give it a try, lots of good luck, and have fun!

Concluding remarks. 

A unit of classes concerning temperature is described for early science education in primary/grade schools.  The suggested series of classes involves active learning and utilizes teaching where the young students will see, touch, and feel what they are learning about; everything relates to their daily activities outside the classroom, yet also prepares them for subsequent science classes in school.

 

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A VERY NEW IMMUNOTHERAPY FOR CANCER WINS THE 2015 LASKER-DEBAKEY CLINICAL MEDICAL RESEARCH AWARD! 

Cancer is "The Big C" for patients, doctors, and research scientists! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Cancer definitely is “The Big C” for many patients, doctors, and researchers!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Many critics of spending billions of dollars on cancer research typically point to the fact that a general cure for neoplastic diseases had not been discovered (see:  “After Spending Billions, Why have Scientists Not Yet Found a Cure for Cancer?” ).  That now is no longer a convincing question, thanks to the basic and applied research of James P. Allison, PhD (University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston).  His breakthrough experiments and new ideas for anticancer therapy led to remissions and probable cures for some cancer patients who previously had no hope.  This article briefly describes Dr. Allison’s research on the functioning of specialized cells in the immune system, which led to discovery of a very new effective approach for therapeutic treatment of cancer.

The Lasker Awards. 

Each year, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation [1] bestows 3 Lasker Awards: Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, and, Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award.  The 2015 Lasker Awards and Laureates all are nicely described on the Foundation website: http://www.laskerfoundation.org/media/index.htm .  Lasker Awards are considered to be most prestigious for medical science,  and the awardees often are considered to be likely to soon receive a Nobel Prize.

Dr. Allison has just won the very prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for 2015 for his innovative new immunotherapy against cancer [2-4].  He previously has received numerous other honorary awards, including the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences [5] and the 2014 Szent-Györgyi Prize from the National Foundation for Cancer Research [6].

A new kind of anti-cancer immunotherapy is developed by Dr. Allison [2-6]! 

Many different immunology-based therapies against cancer have been investigated, but most have produced only limited clinical benefits.  The experimental treatment of cancer with antibodies that specifically bind to molecular components produced by cancer cells has not been successful.  Dr. Allison’s early research investigated the molecular mechanisms for how some cells of the immune system, T-cells, work in the cellular immune response to recognize and kill bacteria, viruses, and abnormal cells in the body. T-cell activities are nominally independent from antibody responses of the immune system.

Detailed research about T-cell surface receptors, binders, and cofactors led to Dr. Allison’s recognition that there are both positive on-signals and negative off-signals regulating T-cells.  One of the down-regulators is a receptor protein named, CTLA-4; upon binding of CTLA-4 to it’s targets, the activation and proliferation of T-cells are turned off.  This negative regulation is normal and is believed to prevent active T-cells from attacking the body’s own constituents (i.e., autoimmune diseases).

Most immunologists have long thought that the immune system should recognize, attack, and kill cancer cells.  Thus, it was a mystery why such does not happen.  This puzzle led Dr. Allison to ask whether CTLA-4 might be turning off a T-cell response against cancer cells.  He tested this hypothesis by developing antibodies that specifically bind CTLA-4 molecules, thereby inactivating their functional activities, including the down-regulation of T-cells.  When these antibodies were injected into laboratory mice bearing a transplantable tumor, there was a large proliferation of T-cells and strong killing of cancer cells inside the tumors!  Injecting control antibodies which bound other proteins had no effects on T-cells, so the tumor-bearing mice died.  Thus, these and other experimental results showed that stopping the normal down-regulation of T-cells released them to give a strong response against neoplastic cells.  The brakes on T-cells had been released by Dr. Allison, so their endogenous anti-cancer activities now went full speed ahead!  The go/no-go interaction between CTLA-4 and T-cells now is known as an immune checkpoint.

The next step in this ongoing research project involved translating the findings from basic research into applied clinical research with experimental treatment of human cancer patients.  After finally finding a pharmaceutical company willing to collaborate with production and testing of anti-CTLA-4 human antibodies, Dr. Allison began initial clinical trials of this experimental treatment of cancer patients who had not responded to any usual surgical, chemical, or radiation therapy.  In some cases the new immunotherapy worked quite well!  A standardized commercial version of human anti-CTLA-4 antibodies was approved for clinical use in 2011; over 30,000 cancer patients now have received the new immunotherapy.  This new cancer treatment is not just another promise of some hoped for future development; it is here today, and actually saves the life of some cancer patients.

Ongoing research in anti-cancer immunotherapy by Dr. Allison and other scientists [2-6]. 

The door now was opened to try this very new kind of anti-cancer therapy with different patients, different cancers, and different therapeutic protocols.  The effects of anti-CTLA-4 antibodies had dramatic results for some patients with malignant myeloma, a blood cell cancer that usually is fatal within one year.  The anti-CTLA-4 therapy put some, but not all, myeloma patients into long-term remission (i.e., over 14 years)!  New research, both by Dr. Allison and by other clinical research scientists, seeks to find: (1) why some malignant myeloma patients do not respond to this new therapy, (2) which additional cancers can be treated by this immunotherapy, (3) whether manipulating other proteins regulating T-cell activities will provide additional curative effects, (4) will combination treatments of cancers (e.g., immunotherapy with concurrent chemotherapy) give even better curative effects, and, (5) can manipulating other immune checkpoints have therapeutic effects against any non-cancer  diseases?

Special features of this very new kind of immunotherapy. 

Some distinctive very special features of this new kind of immunotherapy must be recognized by all readers!

(1)  The new curative therapy is targeted against the immune system, and not against cancer cells.

(2)  T-cells can effectively kill cancer cells; thus, an endogenous response is what kills the cancer cells.

(3)  Endogenous activities of T-cells against neoplastic cells normally are halted by activities of CTLA-4.

(4)  Right now, this new immunotherapy probably cures several types of cancer in some patients.

Concluding remarks. 

Dr. James Allison deserves immense credit for coming up with new ideas and new research findings about the immune system, and for asking new clinical questions.  He is an superb example of how PhD scientists investigating pure basic science in a laboratory can contribute much to applied clinical research.  Individual scientists having creativity, curiosity, enthusiasm, and the guts to think new thoughts, just like Dr. Allison, are the best hope for more important discoveries in all branches of scientific research.

Dr. Allison very clearly has made a wonderful contribution to modern clinical medicine.   All of us can hope that additional cancers finally will be conquered with the results from further research studies and innovative medical developments.  In addition, new approaches to immunotherapy might also benefit patients with some non-cancer diseases.

Recommended videos by and about Dr. James Allison! 

“James Allison’s Cancer Research Breakthrough”, 2014, is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySG2AwpSZmw&spfreload=10 .

“Dr. Jim Allison – 2014 Szent-Györgyi Prize”, 2014, is available on the internet at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGu2uzV9QOM .

“James P. Allison, Ph.D. on Targeting Immune Checkpoints in Cancer Therapy”, 2015, is available at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoBkuTOPJqg .

 

[1]  Lasker Foundation, 2015a.  Foundation overview.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.laskerfoundation.org/about/index.htm.

[2]  Lasker Foundation, 2015b.  Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.  Award description.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.laskerfoundation.org/award/2015_c_description.htm .

[3]  Lasker Foundation, 2015c.  Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.  Award presentation by Michael Bishop.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.laskerfoundation.org/awards/2015_c_presentation.htm .

[4]  University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Newsroom, 2015.  MD Anderson immunologist Jim Allison wins Lasker-DeBakey Award.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.mdanderson.org/newsroom/news-releases/2015/allison-wins-lasker-award.html .

[5]  University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Newsroom, 2013.  M.D. Anderson researcher Jim Allison wins Breakthrough Prize for his innovative cancer immunology research.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.mdanderson.org/newsroom/news-releases/2013/immunology-research.html .

[6]  National Foundation for Cancer Research, 2015.  The Szent-Györgyi Prize for progress in cancer research.  Available on the internet at: http://www.nfcr.org/prize .

 

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