Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Research ethics and animal use

The other day, I was talking with some of the new students in my department. I was rather curious why most of them wanted to work in microbiology rather than immunology, and it turned out that the reason had a lot to do with an unwillingness to work with animals. For several of these students, there was no justification for harming animals; at least, "in the name of science," wasn't good enough for them.

Yesterday, during our monthly ethics seminar/discussion, the topic fell to lab animal care and rights. Several people had stories falling one way or the other, either researchers who refused to use anything but cell lines (and even then, some refused to use animal derived cell lines), while others told tales of of lab techs who would euthanize their animals by whacking their heads against the counter, or smacking them in the head with a stick. Blech.

The mission leader stated that 52% of the public opposes animal use in research. I don't know where he read that, but it's a dangerous number all the same. He only had one explanation for such opposition, but I can think of a few reasons to add to it:

  1. Ignorance. The thought was that people oppose animal research because they don't really understand how much benefit it brings, how widespread its use is, how much caution and care is taken in the use of laboratory animals, etc. I find it likely that this makes up the majority of that 52%. At least, I hope that's the case. These people likely oppose it when asked for a survey, but don't care enough to make an issue out of it during an electoral cycle.

  2. Naturalism. These are people who think that most modern, biological sciences are tampering with things that ought to be left well enough alone. This is the same group that rabidly opposes "frankenfoods" and other uses of bioengineering. I don't think this is a large segment, but they are quite vocal, and visible, when they want to be.

  3. Anthropomorphism. The fundamental justification behind the use of animals in research is that the life of a mouse (or rabbit, goat, rat, frog, etc.) is not worth the same as a human; the loss of a mouse to save the life of a human is, thus, a "no-brainer." If you place any sort of equivalence between human life and animal life, I'm not sure there's much to be done to convince you that animal research is worthwhile. For what it's worth, I dislike this position most of all because the end result is often people who will attempt to kill researchers in an attempt to "save" the lives of their research animals.
Oh, I'm probably oversimplifying things, but I think scientists need to hope that most of that 52% falls into the first category. My colleagues keep suggesting that scientists need to become more visible in the public eye, defending their efforts and justifying their work. I don't necessarily disagree, but it's awfully dangerous to be a spokesman for animal research these days.

No one's immune

Sometimes my colleagues worry about how the public perceives them and their profession (that is, research scientists). There's a worry across the country that too many laypeople are uninformed about basic science and thus unable to appreciate what it is that we do. This can reflect poorly when it comes to public attitude about the sciences, affecting funding and policy.

Guys . . . stories like this don't help:
Employee misconduct investigations, often involving workers accessing pornography from their government computers, grew sixfold last year inside the taxpayer-funded foundation that doles out billions of dollars of scientific research grants, according to budget documents and other records obtained by The Washington Times.

The problems at the National Science Foundation (NSF) were so pervasive they swamped the agency's inspector general and forced the internal watchdog to cut back on its primary mission of investigating grant fraud and recovering misspent tax dollars.

Okay. This is bad. But at least the people involved copped to it, right? I mean, intelligent, rational people know when to acknowledge that they've been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Right?

When finally caught, the NSF official retired. He even offered, among other explanations, a humanitarian defense, suggesting that he frequented the porn sites to provide a living to the poor overseas women. Investigators put the cost to taxpayers of the senior official's porn surfing at between $13,800 and about $58,000.

"He explained that these young women are from poor countries and need to make money to help their parents and this site helps them do that," investigators wrote in a memo.

. . . I don't think that's gonna help your case, buddy.

I'm always glad when a spotlight is shone on the abuse of taxpayer dollars, but this is just embarrassing. Thanks NSF, glad to know that you're putting a good face out there for us.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Furthering the health care discussion

I'm putting my conversation with Ryan from the comments below into a new post, for various reasons. Partly because it gives me an excuse to have another post on the blog, partly because the amount I'll need to write is just not conducive in the meager commenting function Blogger offers, and partly because it's my blog and I feel like it. So there.

Anyhow . . .
  • Re: Preventative Care
I wouldn't fuss with this one, except that the people attempting to sell the President's health care bill keep saying that this will pay for itself by cutting costs and finding new efficiencies, such as emphasizing preventative care. This raises so many problems for me. How do you achieve such savings, since preventative care is largely dependent on the cooperation of the patients? How much money would this actually save, since the estimates say that Obama's plan will cost at least $1 trillion? Would a failure of patients to follow preventative care measures result in penalties for doctors? Would treatment of conditions which could be prevented be rationed, discouraged, or used as reason to punish doctors?

I'd like answers to those questions before I accept "More preventative medicine!" as a cure-all for this bill.
  • Re: Other models
I'm not sure which country the Obama bill most resembles, a lot of people suspect that it's a "foot-in-the-door" strategy to get to a British system (based largely on things like this).

In any case, I'm still not sure why we'd want to emulate the health care models of other countries. We still have the best system in terms of outcome following treatment, and the other systems have plenty of problems associated with them. Japan faces a problem of staffing shortages as well, and Germany's care comes at the cost of what I understand to be excruciating taxes.
  • Re: Skepticism on the spending
First off, I don't think it's unreasonable to be concerned with revolutionary levels of spending during painful recessions; there are a lot of estimates that the passage of Obama's bill could strangle any economic recovery for years, maybe even decades. It just seems like a bad idea to restructure such a large portion of our economy in one fell swoop like this, especially when it keeps seeming like Obama wants to hurry it through.

In any case, I think the appeals to Iraq and Afghanistan are unfair. "If you're going to spend money on X, why not spend it on Y as well?" doesn't strike me as a logical argument if X and Y aren't really related. It's a debate of national security vs. domestic policy, and it's not really the topic at hand (plus, I think most people will agree that national security ought to take priority). In any case, I did complain during the spending sprees of the previous administration; not in regards to foreign policy, but definitely relating to TARP and automotive bailouts.
  • Re: Insurance industry collapse
I posted a link earlier as to why people think the insurance industry will be threatened by this, but I'll sum up the arguments: The plan currently would force insurance companies to accept all applicants, the plan forces mandatory coverage, the proposal is to subsidize those who can't afford coverage, and the plan puts mandates on employers for employee health care as well.

I don't have a lot of data to support the threat those issue pose. I can say that they seem threatening. I can say that mandatory coverage doesn't seem to have worked so well for Massachusetts. I can say that forcing insurance companies to compete with the government will never work out for them, but I'm incredibly skeptical.
  • Re: Letting them die
You know, I never said I just wanted to let the uninsured sit outside emergency rooms and die. I feel like that's putting words in my mouth.

To the best of my knowledge, the law on the books is that hospitals have to treat emergency patients, regardless of insurance or ability to pay. While I understand such a thing to be a burden to the hospitals, how much of a burden is it? It seems to be assumed that this is a massive cost, and while I've seen various numbers bandied about as to how much this runs, I've yet to see a citation for those numbers. It's worth asking, however, whether moving to a system where the uninsured receive taxpayer-subsidized insurance will actually do anything besides shift costs around; again, people still seem worried that a sudden influx of newly insured people will cause a strain on the system that will decrease the quality of care currently available. There's also the concern that a publicly subsidized plan would ration care in order to control costs. Is any of that unreasonable?

In the end, I'm not sure I'm the best spokesman for the issue; my grasp of the fine details is lacking, and I work mainly with hunches, suppositions, and reasoning based on incomplete knowledge. That doesn't change my position that it's a bad idea in its current form, though, as always, my mindless blatherings should be taken with an extra helping of salt.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The timely review is a lie

You know how I know I'm this guy? I recently played (and finished) Portal. Finally.

I'm not sure what would be gained from offering a "review" of this game. It's old enough at this point that you either know you should play it or have already played it. Everyone else probably just doesn't care about the FPS genre or PC games in general.

Still, I haven't met my useless blather quota for 2009 yet, so I might as well write about it.

This isn't a traditional FPS (first-person shooter, for those not in the know). The only "gun" you use during the game creates portals; by firing a blue portal at one location and an orange portal at another, you can instantly move through time and space. In essence, this is a physics platform/puzzle game played in first-person. It really is as clever and fun as everyone said it was.

I finished the game in roughly 2 hours. I'll give Valve credit for polishing it to a perfect shine, but it's essentially a demo, which is why I guess it came bundled with several other games as part of the Orange Box.

The mystery put together by the rather spartan clues of story in the game left me aching for more. Gee, what an unusual change of pace from Valve! The game should be enjoyed for what it is, but I'm a sucker when it comes to a good story, and the brief, leading clues drew me in easily. What I wouldn't give for a few minutes alone with the Valve writers just to pick at their brains.

Anyhow, this game comes with my recommendation, whatever that's worth. It's cheap and easy to pick up on Steam these days, too, so give it a try if you've got a couple of hours to kill and need something fun to do.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Autocratic Mash Note

Keeping with a theme, I guess, Thomas Friedman's column for today was yearning for the type of benevolent rule we see in . . . China? Yeesh.

Anyhow, Jonah Goldberg isn't buying it. Nobody in their right mind is.

Reasons to oppose Obamacare

Even with the "government option" seemingly off the table, there's still plenty of reasons that Obama's proposed reforms are a bad idea.

This post over at Ace's place is a concise summation of said reasons. It's worth a read if you think the only reason to oppose it is because dead peasants make excellent fertilizer for the lawns Republicans plant in front of their diamond mines.

This is related: Five lies Obama will tell in his speech to Congress.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Harry Potter and the Health Care Reform Seminar

I know the title makes no sense, but I figured it might at least make the event seem more interesting than it actually was. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but certainly not what I received; the event was not open to the public, the crowd was completely subdued, and the floor was not open to questions. I'd complain, but they took pre-written questions before the event, and one of the organizers asked congressman Sarbanes the questions during a brief Q&A period. I'd speculate on the person asking only "friendly" questions, but mine was one chosen, so I can't imagine that to be the case.

The set-up for the event was such: John Sarbanes gave a 30 min. introductory talk, going over what they wanted to accomplish with health care reform, what they needed to do yet, and a bit of why it needed to be done. This was followed by representatives from each of the schools here (Pharmacy, Nursing, Law, Social Work, Dentistry, and Medicine) talking about what health care reform means to them, what challenges they see for their profession in the coming years, etc.

All in all, it was non-controversial. Sarbanes stuck to the party line talking points when discussing reform. I was hoping for something YouTube worthy. At least something like, "All those people who oppose this are morons!" Nothing. The only real moments of conflict were drawn from my question and inspired by the dean of the law school, of all people. I asked Sarbanes why litigation reform wasn't on the table (his answer being that studies show that it won't save any costs, though I'm not inclined to believe such and don't think that's sufficient anyhow). When the law school dean was up to speak, he mentioned it again in a, "Yeah, that's not gonna happen," kind of way. However, later when the med school representative spoke, he looked at the rest of the panel and countered with, "Nuts to you guys, we need tort reform." The law school guy spent the rest of the evening shooting daggers with his eyes at the med school speaker. Very exciting, yes?

A couple of things I do want to grab onto, though. First, Sarbanes spoke continually about moving to preventative care as a means of saving money. I have yet to see anybody show this to be the case. In fact, it's part of the "defensive medicine" that doctors complain about practicing now; running extraneous tests to catch something "just in case" is not a money saving procedure.

Second, Sarbanes got an answer about increasing access to health care for the millions of new people who will end up on the public dole because of this, and his answer was incredibly evasive. The fact of the matter is, if you suddenly have 50 million new people with insurance, they're going to start seeing doctors. That means we need a lot more health care workers at all levels, or we're going to have the same, awful staff shortages that Britain's NHS suffers. Exactly how does Congress propose to get these people without the quality of the care suffering?

Third, Sarbanes made a point of saying that the public plan will remain competitive with private insurance because it isn't for-profit, but that it must also stand on its own feet (by law). That is, it can't be taxpayer subsidized by pay for itself. He said with a smirk afterwards that those darn insurance companies are just gonna have to cut executive pay to stay competitive. I could dedicate an entire post to what was wrong with that sentiment, but suffice it to say that nobody in their right mind believes a politician when they say that a program will pay for itself. When has a government program like this ever been within budget? And why on Earth would a politician not opt to "temporarily" infuse tax dollars into the program to keep it afloat once it's running?

He also mentioned that the CBO estimated only 12 million people would be on the public plan after however many years, and I don't recall ever hearing that. You know, because the government has never underestimated the popularity of one of its programs.

Finally, just a bit of rhetoric. In talking about the emphasis in moving to preventative care, Sarbanes stated that it was society's duty to keep people healthy, not just treat them once they're sick. That, as Jonah Goldberg might say, is liberal fascism talking. It is a personal responsibility to take care of oneself. Society has no place there.

(And when Obama appeals to Christians that the Bible says that, "I am my brother's keeper," he's talking out the wrong end of his digestive tract. That never appears in the Bible.)

So, the event wasn't terribly exciting, but it did give me something to blog about. Finally.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Interesting things to come

You'd think that, since I seem to have moved to a monthly posting schedule, that I'd be putting more interesting or substantive posts up. Not today, friends.

However! Tonight I'll be attending an "informational seminar" regarding the proposed healthcare reform bill, and apparently my congressman (John Sarbanes) will be there. I'm not entirely certain if it's going to have a Q&A session or not. Either way, I'm hoping to have some very interesting material to write about afterwards.

As an aside, the promotional material for the event invites people to attend "a civil discussion" about healthcare reform. I'm going to be ticked if there's no Q&A; how arrogant is it when people call it a discussion but don't allow questions? That's not a discussion, that's you sharing your point of view and me having to shut up and listen.